Coal has been an ever-present part of one of the most expensive and high profile midterm elections this year—the Kentucky Senate race between Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes—despite its rapidly declining economic significance.
Kentucky's newspapers and airwaves are full of ads from both candidates pledging to protect the industry and fight the Environmental Protect Agency's attempts to regulate its carbon emissions. Each candidates' statements have become popular political fodder for attack ads by SuperPACs on both sides of the aisle. As one local news channel put it, coal "has become the hot issue in the country's hottest political contest."
But the industry that Grimes and McConnell have spent so much time and money fighting over is a bit of an illusion, several experts said. Coal has been dying for decades within Kentucky.
Production has plummeted in recent years, dropping 11.8 percent in 2013 to 80.5 million tons, the lowest level since 1963. The number of coal workers dropped from more than 75,000 in the 1940s to 11,885 in 2013. The state lost 2,222 mining jobs in 2013 alone. Coal currently makes up only .6 percent of Kentucky's total employment.
"Coal is iconic in Kentucky," said Al Cross, an expert on state politics and a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky. "Most people don't realize how small a part of the economy it actually is. If you ask someone in eastern Kentucky, they'll probably say it accounts for 10 percent. But in reality, it is less than 1 percent."
Coal played an integral part in Kentucky's economy for nearly 150 years. And it became deeply rooted in the state's culture in the process, woven into regional music, literature, folklore, and traditions. However, production started falling in the late 1980s after decades of aggressive mining left the state's reserves depleted. Companies shuttered or scaled back their Kentucky mines in search of cheap coal elsewhere, like the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. They also started using automated equipment to mine remaining, harder-to-reach Kentucky reserves more safely and effectively. The Environmental Protection Agency began enforcing regulations for common coal byproducts, such as mercury and sulfur dioxide. At the same time, an increase in hydraulic fracturing across the nation drove natural gas prices to all-time lows.
In just two decades, the industry's workforce shrank to one-fifth of its previous size. Unemployment skyrocketed, hitting as high as 17.4 percent in the coal-mining regions of the state earlier this year.
Michael Hail, a political scientist and an expert on Kentucky politics at Morehead State University, said that despite its faltering economic impact, coal "has more political cachet than ever before. It is not just an economic matter. Coal touches a lot of lives in Kentucky."
The industry has been deeply involved in philanthropic activity over the years, donating money for schools and public services, Hail explained. And even though coal employment has decreased, there are still some rural areas of the state where mining is the largest, if not practically the only, employer.
Despite the fact that Kentucky's coal has been declining for decades, McConnell and Grimes' pledges to protect the industry have largely focused on President Barack Obama's policies. In particular, they publicly oppose his plan to cut emissions from both new and existing coal-fired power plants—which account for nearly 25 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions—to fight climate change. Kentucky generates nearly 93 percent of its electricity from coal mined both in and out of the state.
"In the minds of Democrats and Republicans in Kentucky, the coal industry would be expanding if Washington's regulatory regime were more friendly to coal as an energy source," said Hail. "Grimes and McConnell have both gone out of their way to say, 'I'm the coal candidate.'"
McConnell, the 72-year-old Senate Minority leader who could become Majority leader if Republicans score enough seats in the midterm election, swore to "stop [Obama's] war on coal."
Grimes, 35, who is currently Kentucky's secretary of state and an attorney, has fought hard to shake any association with Obama. In one campaign video, she fires a shotgun before turning to the camera to say, "I am not Barack Obama... I disagree with him on guns, coal and the EPA." She has repeatedly said in interviews that she will fight for "what keeps the lights on" in Kentucky and lists on her campaign website a pro-coal plan as one of her top issues.
The one difference in the two candidates' official energy positions is that Grimes has said she believes that climate change is happening while McConnell has not.
Millions of dollars have been spent making the fossil fuel a central focus in this November's Senate election.
The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, a nonprofit with ties to Republican strategist Karl Rove, has spent $6.9 million in support of McConnell, including a 12-week, $750,000 digital ad campaign "to educate Kentuckians on the disastrous policies of the Obama Administration when it comes to the Commonwealth's coal-based economy, and on legislation aimed at stopping those policies," according to the group's website.
As of June, the last time campaign contributions were reported, McConnell, a 30-year Senate veteran, had raised approximately $24 million in campaign contributions. Much of it came from the oil and gas industry and investment companies like the Blackstone Group, a major investor in coal-fired power plants. Individual donors include executives from several energy companies, such as David and Charles Koch of Koch Industries and Richard Kinder of Kinder Morgan.
Grimes had raised more than $11 million, but a full analysis of what industries the money came from had not been done at press time. Between Grimes and McConnell, about 85 percent of contributions to the campaigns have come from out of state, according to The Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville.
Polling shows that the candidates are neck and neck as they enter the final four weeks of the campaign.
Coal will certainly remain a top issue.
"Like bourbon and horse racing, coal is an integral part of Kentucky's identity," Hail said. "If you're going to win an election, you need to be supportive of the industry."
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Kentucky's coal industry provides .06 percent of the state's jobs. It makes up .6 percent of the state's total employment.