By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
The term “coal wars” once referred to bitter conflicts between coal companies and miners who sought to unionize to negotiate for higher pay and more humane working conditions.
But in 2014, Kentucky’s coal war is between Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, 72, and the woman who wants his job — Democratic state Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, 35.
They both claim to be fighting for the “hard-working coal miner,” but, in reality, both are fighting for another prize: a U.S. Senate seat.
With Monday’s announcement of new carbon regulations by the Obama Administration the fight intensified. McConnell introduced in the Senate what he’s calling the Coal Country Protection Act, which would require certification that the new regulations won’t cost jobs, decrease the national Gross Domestic Product, increase electrical rates or lessen the reliability of electrical service delivery before implementation.
Grimes responded calling McConnell’s bill “inadequate” and saying EPA’s “overburdensome regulations” must be reined in.
“While it is heartening Mitch McConnell turns his eye to coal country every six years to get re-elected, the senior senator’s new bill does not go far enough and is inadequate,” said Jonathan Hurst, Grimes’ campaign manager.
Earlier Tuesday, McConnell spoke about his bill, attacking President Obama for “trying to impose this national energy tax.”
The new rules seek to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 30 percent and particulate matter by 25 percent by 2030 nationally. But it assigns different targets to states based on their circumstances. As a coal-dependent state, Kentucky is asked to reduce emissions by 18 percent while some states are asked to reduce emissions by much more.
The regulations do not impose a tax, but McConnell’s Senate spokesman, Robert Steurer said, “The EPA regs will lead to increased costs on families across the country, a national energy tax.”
McConnell is seeking a sixth term in hopes the GOP will this year take control of the Senate from Democrats and make him majority leader. But his poll numbers in Kentucky show he is viewed unfavorably by more people than those who approve of his performance and so he’s tried to make the campaign about Obama rather than about him and Grimes.
McConnell says Grimes will be beholden to Democrats Obama and current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid if she’s elected and that she will side with them in the “war on coal.” When he’s not tying her to opponents of coal, he’s trying to tie her to the Affordable Care Act, which polls poorly in Kentucky and which critics call “Obamacare.”
McConnell managed to tie the two together Tuesday in his floor speech, calling “the president’s national energy tax Obamacare 2.0” and calling the new rules “a dagger aimed right at the heart of the middle class.”
On the same day, Kentuckians for a Strong Leadership, a 527 Super PAC supporting McConnell and advised by former McConnell staffer Scott Jennings, went up with a new radio ad which says, “Here in Kentucky, Obama is supporting Alison Lundergan Grimes.” It goes on to say Grimes continued to support Obama even “after he declared war on our coal community.”
Meanwhile Grimes is starting newspaper ads in coal regions showing the face of a miner with the caption that “President Obama and Washington don’t get it … Alison Grimes does” and promising to “oppose anyone who works against Kentucky’s coal industry.”
State Rep. Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro, represents Bell and part of Harlan County, in the heart of coal country. He says Grimes needs to do more such advertising and make personal appearances in the region to persuade voters she supports the coal industry.
But Nelson, and Democratic state Senators Johnny Ray Turner of Prestonsburg and Ray Jones of Pikeville who are critical of Obama’s policies, say Grimes can do that.
And Jones said McConnell needs to explain why he should be considered an ally of the region. Pike County coal production, Jones said, had fallen from 34 million tons per year to 21 million tons annually even before Obama was elected and has since fallen farther.
“And Mitch McConnell never said a word about eastern Kentucky or the coal industry,” Jones said. Now, Jones said, McConnell wants credit for sponsoring a bill to protect the coal industry “but by that time Pike County had already lost half of its coal production.”
It’s a modern-day coal war. Who wins depends largely on who can persuade residents of the coal regions which of them is on their side.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.