Commerce Lexington should promote the future, not coal’s past

As world leaders gather Monday in Copenhagen to rewrite energy policies to reduce future carbon emissions, Lexington business leaders have rewritten their energy policy to try to help the coal industry cling to the past.

Commerce Lexington announced a policy revision last week. that dropped a reference to “encourage the production and use of reliable and less carbon-intensive energy fuels, like natural gas” and replaced it with “maintain the production of affordable, reliable energy.” Several direct coal industry endorsements were added, including:

” … the most immediate threat to Kentucky’s business climate is the pending energy legislation and regulatory obstacles that place an undue burden on states like Kentucky that rely heavily on coal-fired generation plants for electricity. … Commerce Lexington opposes any legislation and regulations that would have a significant negative impact” on coal-industry jobs.

Robert Quick, Commerce Lexington’s president, said the business advocacy group has always supported coal and wanted to make that support more explicit. “It’s hypocritical if we advocate for low-cost energy without supporting coal,” he said.

Quick said the rewrite was prompted by a two-day bus tour of Eastern Kentucky by nearly 70 Commerce Lexington members that “opened our eyes.” The trip included tours of showcase coal projects and presentations by industry representatives and coal-friendly public officials, but nothing from coal’s critics in the region.

Quick said the bus tour on Oct. 12-13 wasn’t a coal-industry junket. He emphasized that Commerce Lexington doesn’t deny climate change or the need to transition away from coal as Kentucky’s reserves are depleted.

“We know that there’s climate change,” Quick said. “We have to be looking for alternative fuels. It’s going to be a transition. Change is coming.”

Quick said the policy rewrite was simply intended to acknowledge coal’s role in Kentucky’s economy and to “make a connection” with mountain leaders.

“Nobody from the coal industry or our membership got to us,” he said. “Nobody got us in a head lock.”

Some people may see it that way.

Others will see it this way: The rewrite echoes a publicity campaign being waged for the coal industry by Phil Osborne, a public relations executive who serves on Commerce Lexington’s Executive Committee and played a big role in the bus tour.

Others also will see the policy rewrite as an attempt to pacify powerful pro-coal people in Eastern Kentucky, some of whom have been calling for a boycott of Lexington businesses because all of our public officials and media don’t toe the coal industry line the way theirs do.

Yes, the coal industry produces some good-paying jobs in Eastern Kentucky, although many fewer than in the past. That’s because of controversial, mechanized surface-mining methods that are radically altering the mountain landscape.

While it’s good that Commerce Lexington members spent time in Eastern Kentucky, they could have gotten a more well-rounded education on coal by traveling to the University of Kentucky campus Nov. 5 for the College of Engineering’s excellent coal conference.

In addition to hearing the coal industry’s perspectives, Commerce Lexington members would have heard from Eastern Kentuckians who have had their property, communities, water supplies and health damaged by coal mining. And they would have gotten a more complete — and less rosy — picture of coal’s impact on Kentucky’s economy.

King Coal’s campaign against change reminds me of Big Tobacco’s lobbying efforts three decades ago. Long after others were acknowledging the inevitable, Kentucky leaders kept trying to deny tobacco’s harm.

Coal will be much harder to quit than tobacco. Coal produces half the nation’s electricity and 92 percent of Kentucky’s. Nobody denies the valuable contributions that hard-working coal miners have made. Without coal we wouldn’t have our modern lifestyle.

Coal will continue to be essential to our nation for many years. But the longer we keep mining and burning coal the way we do now, the more dangerous it will be for our economy and our planet.

Coal companies have a long history of fighting change, from mine safety reforms to surface owners’ rights to surface-mine reclamation. They always claim that any new regulation will kill the coal industry. Regulation has never killed the coal industry; but the industry has never changed without regulation.

One startling indicator of change came last week in a commentary written by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who has been one of coal’s strongest allies in Congress for more than five decades.

Byrd wrote bluntly that if the coal industry wants to be a player in helping set future energy policy it must stop scapegoating, stoking fear among its workers, resisting environmental regulation and denying climate change.

Commerce Lexington’s rewritten energy policy may appease some powerful people in Eastern Kentucky, but Lexington business leaders should think about what kind of message it sends to the rest of the nation and world.

Is it smart to go down tobacco road again, to help the coal industry wage a losing battle to cling to the past?

Or would it be smarter to position Lexington as the place where researchers and entrepreneurs should come to solve coal’s problems?

The future will belong to those cities, states and nations that figure out how to mine and use coal in more environmentally responsible ways and develop the energy technologies that must someday replace coal.

To paraphrase the old Harlan County coal camp song, Commerce Lexington should think about which side of inevitable change it wants to be on.

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to “Commerce Lexington should promote the future, not coal’s past”

  1.   Jeff Lewis Says:

    Dear Mr. Eblen,

    I congratulate you on seeing the parallel between Big Tobacco and Big Coal.

    But I think you’re wrong to say we’ll have a harder time quitting coal than tobacco.

    That’s not the context at all. The true situation is this: Big Tobacco paid off; and Big Coal will too.

    The parallels will be multiple. We’ll see the same trail of guilty e mails, showing that coal companies knew long ago that their “product” has been responsible for tens if not hundreds of thousands of wrongful deaths, by violation of regulations, by cynical maneuvering to gain mining rights, and by conscious production of more than one kind of deadly pollution.

    And there isn’t even the excuse that individuals “choose to smoke”. Nobody chooses to breathe the toxic fumes that coal-fired plants produce.

    The decisions about the legal framework – many lawsuits, criminal investigations (including the current astroturfing efforts), increased regulation, administrative takeover, seizure under eminent domain or within a special public interest framework – remain to be made.

    What is not in doubt, in the long run, is that all the assets of Big Coal are forfeit from this moment to the state of Kentucky and to the public interest of its taxpayers.

    This is still a good deal for them, since their liability in toto is greater than their total assets’ value, especially after we figure in the destruction of thousands of square miles of the natural environment, and the value of thousands of wrongful death lawsuits that will be made possible, once there is a legal determination that the coal industry is responsible for the damage it has caused.

    Over 50 years ago Kentucky officials made a strategic decision not to try to construct hydroelectric generating capacity in Eastern Kentucky. That decision involved lobbying by coal interests, then as now. But because of the struggle against climate change, Kentucky cannot afford a long process of weaning itself off coal, as you assume. You’re aware of the very small number of jobs involved in the strip mining and mountaintop removal operations. The environmental reconstruction of Eastern Kentucky will involve immediate moves to create hydroelectric generating capacity. This TVA-like project will accomplish several things at once.

    First, it will strengthen any U.S. initiative to reduce carbon emissions per unit of GDP by supporting the health of the part of Eastern US Forest (a recognized name) that covers Eastern Kentucky and extends into other states.

    Second, it will provide increased employment for Eastern Kentuckians – and first in line will be the same experienced equipment operators who now work in strip mining and mountaintop removal – practices which must cease. I believe that this project will employ four people for every mining job lost – at least 20,000 people.

    Third, this project will make possible the economic rescue of Eastern Kentucky – which is a region in economic and social collapse. Indeed, the way in which coal companies manipulate mining families to support their greed and reckless polluting is nauseating. You’re probably aware of the millions spent just this year on generating fake grassroots organizations in order to influence members of legislatures, including Congress (the Bonner Associates case in point).

    Eastern Kentucky can continue to have all its counties, but their administrations have to be made uniform, and their population movement has to be possible and predictable. You can’t just inject jobs into counties whose tax base has collapsed. The populations of some counties have high percentages of people suffering from debilitating medical conditions and people officially on disability relief. People who need better services should be able to move closer to their source. At the same time, the energy project will bring new populations – undoubtedly including many Hispanics – into rural areas that have ceased to be sustainable, culturally and economically.

    Where will this project’s funding come from? Much of it will eventually come from the Federal government. This project can be the second stimulus, and its size guarantees its profitability, as compared with the bang-for-buck of the many small projects funded by the first stimulus.

    Another large chunk of funding will come from the expropriation of the coal industry, once its liability has been determined to exceed its assets. The state will reverse privatization of public utilities. Electric bills may rise, or they may fall. Under state management, the mission will simply be to provide necessary power for light and heat for every Kentuckian.

    But the goal will be for Kentucky to become an energy exporter.

    The possibility is obvious enough. Kentucky has energy resources. There are three necessities: the population must have adequate power available, although conservation practices, including peak and low hours and times, should be instituted (i.e., brownouts). Second, Kentucky must immediately move to increase its generating capacity, through development of hydroelectric power, wind, solar and even nuclear, if this is necessary.

    Third: whatever energy resources exist in Kentucky, they must be developed and managed in the public interest. This is really the main reason why the coal industry has to be bought out and/or taken over. Strip mining and mountaintop removal are clear indications of Peak Coal. Coal production cannot rise; it can only fall. Therefore it makes economic sense not to extract any more coal than absolutely necessary, since the price of coal can only rise, long term.

    The coal industry is incapable of restraining production and thinking long term. This is because the owners of the coal industry are not from Kentucky.

    Kentucky has to think for itself. This problem was actually well illustrated in comments on your blog concerning Centre Pointe. Many, possibly astroturfed, commenters pointed out that Webb owns the block, and should be able to do whatever he wants with it.

    But the block is the center of the city of Lexington. And hypothetically, the people of the city, through their government, should be able to determine in some detail what takes place at the very center of the city. If not, it’s hard to see how the government differs from a group of cheerleaders for business.

    The same thing is true at the state level. We see corruption of state officials influenced by the coal industry. Eventually, this too will figure in a true bill laid at the feet of coal company executives.

    The only question is whether Kentucky will see climate change as an opportunity to leapfrog over states like Indiana and Ohio in the ranking of states. In many ways the current situation is just the arrival of the trough in the business cycle that Chinese manufacturing postponed for 16 years. Kentucky must retool. In this retooling, the fact that Kentucky is not as damaged as Indiana and Ohio in environmental terms is crucial. That is the advantage; and Big Coal’s aim is to destroy it.

  2.   Rona Roberts Says:

    Tom, This is a fine piece. The Chamber’s position on this disappointed my small company grievously. As members, we were completely taken aback by this policy change. It seems like driving in reverse gear.

  3.   Steve Penn Says:

    Mr. Eblen,

    This issue should certainly be in the public debate but your article is long on generalization and short on substantiation. Your title trumpets “Recent Coal support makes no economic sense” but you never say why. It’s all too easy to demagogue this (as one could about the press). Balanced reporting should have included something more substantive, like the math you use for your conclusions, a bit about the technology for clean coal and it’s alternatives, availability, adaptability to large scale, speed to adoption, obstacles to adoption, cost to all rate payers, impact on the Commonwealth’s economy et cetera. My only bias is for good reporting.

    We would all benefit by learning more about factual pros and cons of this issue. I’d encourage you to talk more about what “The future will belong to those cities, states and nations that figure out how to mine and use coal in more environmentally responsible ways and develop the energy technologies that must someday replace coal” means to us…specifically.

    Steve Penn

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