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.