Kentucky is heading toward its energy future paddling in opposite directions. Some lawmakers want to boost the use of alternative energies, especially biomass, to diversify its fuel mix. But coal remains the backbone of its manufacturing-driven economy, and others are determined to keep it that way.
The political dynamic playing out in Kentucky offers a local window into the larger national energy dilemma. The state is seeking the benefits of a clean economy, but coal is still the source of 92 percent of its electricity and brings in $3.5 billion in export revenue.
Currently, state legislators are deliberating three bills to spur economic growth and rein in soaring electricity rates. One would foster clean energy development. The others would shelter the coal industry from Obama administration regulations on greenhouse gases that opponents say would kill industrial jobs.
While it's true that Kentucky cheap coal has long attracted manufacturing industry — which currently employs 213,000 people in the automotive, steel and aluminum sectors — new figures suggest times are changing.
Electricity rates have risen 41 percent on average over the last five years, delivering a blow to the state's big industries. Kentucky's cheap energy has become less of a competitive advantage.
Manufacturing jobs have fallen 30 percent in the last decade, hitting the one-third of Kentuckians who live in low-income housing the hardest.
At the same time, the state's smaller mines have become more expensive to operate, and newer machine-intensive technologies have cut back on manpower. As a result, coal mining jobs in Kentucky have fallen from 50,000 positions in 1979 to 18,000 today, according to the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED).
Today, mining accounts for one percent of total non-farm employment in the state.
"The price of coal — to mine it, generate it and to try to manage the waste — is getting more expensive," said Elizabeth Crowe, director of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation. "Meanwhile, the number of jobs created through clean renewable energy like wind, solar and hydro are really [rising] in some of our neighboring states" but not in Kentucky.
Government Overreach 'Costing Us Jobs'
However, many legislators from both parties would disagree with the suggestion that coal can't power a jobs engine.
In the Senate, the Natural Resources and Energy Committee approved a largely symbolic measure on Feb. 17 to make Kentucky a "sanctuary state" for the coal industry by exempting mines and power plants from "the overreaching regulatory power" of the EPA.
Under the bill, the state's Energy and Environment Cabinet would go so far as to issue permits to coal mines previously denied by the EPA because of concerns over water pollution.
"As the overreaching EPA impact settles in on us, it's costing us jobs, it's putting us in a very perilous situation," said Chairman Sen. Brandon Smith, a Republican from the coal-mining town of Hazard, and the bill's sponsor.
That same day, the committee's House counterpart approved a bill that would exempt Kentucky mines which produce coal for the state's use — not for export — from federal Clean Water Act requirements. The legislators contend they are protecting states' rights.
But such pro-coal views are being met with growing citizen opposition.
Earlier this month, Wendell Berry, the Kentucky author and poet, occupied the governor's office with 13 others for four days to protest government support of coal, while 1,000 protesters held a demonstration against mountaintop removal mining at the state Capitol.
EPA Bashing 'Temporary Diversion'
Len Peters, secretary of the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, told SolveClimate News that the pro-coal lawmakers introduced the bills as a way to show EPA their displeasure, and have even acknowledged that the state would lose substantial federal Clean Air Act funding if they're passed.
Peters said the bills are merely a "temporary diversion" from Gov. Steven Beshear's long-term goals to diversify the state energy supply, which includes a seven-point strategy to get 25 percent of Kentucky’s energy demand from energy efficiency, renewable energy and biofuels by 2025.
The proposed Clean Energy Opportunity Act on the House floor, H.B. 239, would take the Democratic governor's initiatives even further.
Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, a Democrat from Louisville, introduced the bill earlier this month to establish a renewable and efficiency portfolio standard (REPS) for the state.