Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who aspires to become majority leader and celebrate the fall of the Obama presidency, should consider whether he’s really advancing this agenda by letting the coal industry have its way with our environment. Some voters, especially in Kentucky and other mining states, believe that Big Coal can do no wrong. Others deplore what it’s doing to the planet in general and their own backyards in particular.
McConnell and his tea party allies ought to keep in mind that some social and fiscal conservatives are also conservationists – as environmentalists used to be called. They believe not just in old-fashioned individualism and restraint on public spending but also in the true conservatism of planetary stewardship. A government that spends as if there’s no tomorrow risks insolvency. One that winks at the rape of land, air and water gambles with a priceless treasure.
The senator supported a resolution that would have made the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency back off rules that raise the limits on mercury and other toxins emitted by coal-burning power plants. After the measure failed on a 53-46 vote Wednesday, McConnell reiterated his view that “heavy-handed” regulations kill jobs in the mining business.
In Kentucky, this is not so much a partisan issue as one in which each party tries to outdo the other in asserting its coal-friendliness. Myopic politicians of disparate affiliation are willing to look the other way when coal operators unload spoils on unfortunate neighbors standing in their way. They think mountaintop removal’s just fine as a way to get at the coal underlying Appalachia’s rugged terrain, and they continue to pooh-pooh the role of fossil-fuel burning in global climate change.
Rare exceptions can be found. The Courier-Journal reported that U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-3rd District, was the only Kentuckian among the House Democrats who introduced a bill Tuesday seeking a moratorium on new or expanded mountaintop-removal mining in the region. The Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act would require a study to determine the health risks presented by this form of mineral extraction.
“If it takes a government health study to finally end this destructive practice, I support it,” Yarmuth said.
Back in the Senate, Kentucky Republican Rand Paul joined McConnell in calling on government regulators to give coal burners a break. Forest fires, Paul said, emit more mercury than power plants. Yes, Smokey the Bear was right, we should try to prevent forest fires, for lots of good reasons. That doesn’t mean we should ignore real hazards elsewhere.
McConnell and Paul see environmental protection as part of a “war on coal,” one that costs jobs. The bellicose language is trendy, some Democrats having claimed there’s a “war on women” in matters of reproductive choice. But the rhetoric is overblown in both cases. Lack of insurance coverage to buy birth control won’t kill women, and necessary regulations won’t kill coal.
What might kill coal, eventually, is the development of alternative energy sources. Coal’s strongest assets have been its abundance and low cost. Vast reserves of natural gas, which burns more cleanly, threaten to neutralize this competitive edge. And “green” energy can also become a player.
Coal-state politicians should not assume that voters will forever support special treatment for one privileged industry, no matter how long it’s ruled the roost.