Kentucky needs leadership for change, not the politics of fear

June 8, 2014

I have had mixed emotions since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its long-awaited plan to reduce coal-fired power plant pollution, setting a goal to cut carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels.

I felt happy that my government was finally taking some action to fight manmade climate change, which threatens humanity’s safety, prosperity and future.

But I felt sad as I watched a bipartisan majority of Kentucky politicians fall all over each other to condemn this long-overdue action. Pandering to public fear may be good politics, but, in this case, it is an irresponsible failure of leadership.

SenateCandidatesRepublican Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul called the EPA’s plan illegal and vowed to repeal it. (It is legal, according to a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.)

Not to be outdone, McConnell’s Democratic challenger, Allison Lundergan Grimes, launched an ad blitz repeating the coal industry’s “war on coal” talking points.

“The Obama administration has doubled down on its war on Kentucky coal jobs and coal families,” said another industry parrot, U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, a Republican from Lexington.

State House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, called the pollution-cutting plan “a dumb-ass policy.”

Let us review the facts:

An overwhelming majority of climate scientists think manmade carbon pollution is contributing significantly to climate change. We are already seeing the disastrous results: more frequent killer storms, droughts, shrinking glaciers and rising seas.

Public opinion polls show that a substantial majority of Americans, even in coal-dependent states, understand these realities and want stricter carbon limits.

In addition, health experts say the EPA plan will reduce cancer, heart disease and lung disease through fewer emissions of mercury, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. The American Lung Association says the plan will prevent as many as 4,000 premature deaths in its first year alone.

So why all the political nonsense? It’s simple: the coal, utility and business lobbies that fund these politicians’ campaigns will see their profits suffer, at least in the short term.

The coal industry’s disinformation campaign portrays the desire for cleaner air and water as a “war on coal.” In reality, there are two “wars” on coal, and environmental regulation has only a minor role in each.

The first “war” is one on coal-company profits. It is being waged largely by natural gas companies, whose fracking technology has produced cheaper energy and hurt coal sales. Solar, wind and other renewable energy sources pose another threat.

The second “war” is being waged by coal companies and their political allies against miners and their communities. Kentucky lost about 30,000 coal mining jobs between 1979 and 2006, mostly because of industry mechanization. Add to that a historic disregard for mine safety. Kentucky legislators recently cut the number of state safety inspections at mines from six per year to four.

It is worth noting that the EPA’s new rule could have hit Kentucky much harder had it not been for the coal-friendly administration of Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat. Energy Secretary Len Peters pushed a plan, which the EPA adopted, to give states flexibility in achieving carbon-reduction goals. It set different targets for each state. Kentucky will be required to cut power-plant emissions by 18 percent, much lower than the national average of 30 percent.

Kentucky now gets more than 90 percent of its electricity from coal. The state has some of the nation’s cheapest power because the true cost of coal mining and burning to our health and environment has never been reflected in the rates.

America is gradually moving away from coal toward cleaner energy sources. This will happen no matter how loud and long Kentucky politicians scream. Unless this state acts aggressively to develop alternative energy sources to eventually replace diminishing coal reserves, Kentucky will be left behind — again.

Entrenched business interests have always predicted that each new environmental regulation would destroy the economy. It has never happened. Instead, regulation has sparked innovation that created new jobs and economic opportunities and made America a healthier place to live.

More limits on pollution will raise electricity rates in the short term. But Kentuckians will be rewarded with better health, a less-damaged environment, more innovation and a stronger economy in the future.

Change is hard, but it is necessary. Forward-thinking business people and citizens must demand that our politicians stop pandering to fear and become the leaders we need to make this inevitable transition as painless as possible. A brighter future never comes to those who insist on living in the past.

How about some real leadership rather than a phony ‘War on Coal’

July 13, 2013

Kentucky has plenty of politicians and business executives. But at this critical moment in history, what it really needs are leaders.

President Barack Obama recently decided to bypass a dysfunctional Congress and have the Environmental Protection Agency enforce the Clean Air Act by setting limits on carbon pollution from coal-burning power plants. It was about time.

Scientific consensus is overwhelming that man-made carbon and other pollutants are warming Earth’s climate with disastrous results — floods, droughts, monster storms, melting glaciers and rising sea levels. It already has inflicted billions of dollars worth of damage, and it threatens many aspects of civilization.

The nation’s 600 or so coal-burning power plants produce about 40 percent of our carbon pollution. Plus, studies increasingly show other tolls that coal mining and burning take on our land, water, air and health.

The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will shape the global economy of the future. The sooner the United States gets behind that trend, the more economically competitive it will be. But changing the status quo is hard, especially when entrenched special interests have much to lose.

Most Kentucky politicians’ reaction to Obama’s call for a less-polluted nation was predictable: “War on coal!” they screamed.

A few of our more willfully ignorant legislators voiced skepticism about climate change, or implied that it was somehow God’s will. Most others just complained that improving public health and protecting Kentucky’s land, water and air would cost too much money and eliminate some existing jobs.

The coal industry has long been one of the most powerful forces in Kentucky. And it has resisted every significant effort to limit the environmental damage it does. The multimillion-dollar public relations campaign built around the “war on coal” theme is just the latest example.

But the current slump in Appalachia’s coal industry is largely the result of cheap natural gas, rather than government regulation. And with the richest reserves already mined, many Kentucky coal operators must resort to ever-more costly and destructive methods of surface mining to claw out what remains.

When the coal is all gone in the not-to-distant future, what then? Will Kentucky be positioned for future success? Or will it simply be left with a lot of damaged land, water and people as the world’s economy moves on?

Leaders would approach this problem much differently than most Kentucky politicians and executives are. Since Kentucky still has coal, and coal will by default be a big part of the nation’s energy mix for decades to come, leaders would champion efforts to mine and burn it more responsibly. They also would double down on research to see if “clean coal” technology can become a reality rather than an oxymoron.

Leaders would lobby the Obama administration and Congress for funds to help Kentucky make the transition, soften costly adjustments and create sustainable energy jobs. Remember how tobacco-settlement money helped reshape Kentucky agriculture? What similar models could be created for coal counties and utility customers?

Ambitious leaders might even set a goal to make Kentucky a manufacturing center for solar panels or energy-efficient modular homes. At the least, they would set out to make Kentucky the nation’s energy-efficiency leader through smarter design of new buildings and retrofitting of old ones. Kentucky already leads the nation in energy-efficient school construction, including several of the first school buildings to generate more electricity than they consume.

The General Assembly missed an opportunity for leadership last year when it failed to pass House Bill 170, which would have required electric utilities to use increasing amounts of renewable energy and do more to help customers cut energy consumption. Leadership is needed to pass a version of that bill next year.

Simply allowing citizens and businesses to profit, rather than just break even, by feeding power they produce into the utility grid could make a big difference. With photovoltaic panel prices falling all the time, many people might be willing to invest in solar-panel systems if it could be profitable. Germany now generates 22 percent of its energy from renewable sources — much of it solar — despite having less sunshine than Kentucky.

Each major environmental regulation since the 1960s — from acid-rain legislation to auto-emissions standards — has been met with predictions of economic doom that never materialized. Instead, those regulations not only cleaned up the environment but they also provided the poke private industry needed to innovate.

The stakes of climate change are greater than anything we have faced before. We can’t risk being distracted by the fearmongers. We owe it to ourselves and our descendants to try to limit potential disaster.

Market-based solutions would be preferable to government regulation. But after the demagoguing that so-called “cap and trade” proposals got a few years ago, that seems politically impossible. Industry needs a powerful nudge to innovate, wherever it comes from.

Rather than fighting a war against progress that cannot be won, Kentucky should reinvent itself as an energy innovator. We should show the world that a state settled by pioneers can pioneer again. But that will take leadership, not business and politics as usual.


We can learn some lessons from the pre-election hurricane

November 4, 2012

It didn’t take long for a couple of fringe preachers to proclaim that Hurricane Sandy was God’s retribution for homosexuality and other aspects of society they don’t like.

Such freakish, attention-seeking claims have become as common as the freakish weather that inspires them. But that doesn’t mean God or the forces of nature aren’t trying to tell us something.

There are a couple of obvious lessons in this pre-election hurricane, which killed at least 40 people and caused perhaps $50 billion worth of damage in the Northeast.

The first lesson is that Americans and their leaders should stop ignoring climate change and its increasingly disastrous effects. As the new cover of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine says in bold letters above a news photo of a flooded cityscape, “It’s global warming, stupid.”

Scientists say climate change can’t be directly blamed for any particular storm, or even hurricanes in general. But there is strong scientific evidence that man’s carbon emissions have increased the frequency and severity of destructive weather.

Global warming has caused sea levels to rise, and that magnified the storm surge responsible for so much of Sandy’s destruction.

Yet, climate change has barely been mentioned during the presidential campaign of 2012, which may end up being the warmest year on record. You can attribute that to willful ignorance and complacency on the part of a large segment of the population — and the encouragement of that ignorance and complacency by powerful business interests and the politicians who do their bidding.

You can find some of the most blatant examples of this in Kentucky, where the coal industry and its favored politicians have waged a “war on coal” propaganda campaign, which in reality is a campaign against clean air, clean water and public health.

Appalachian coal reserves are dwindling and cheap natural gas has eroded coal’s markets, but the industry seems determined to extract every last bit of profit from Kentucky, no matter how much damage it does.

The lack of action to address climate change underscores a failure of leadership in both government and business.

President Barack Obama rarely spoke about climate change during this campaign, because he knew it would hurt him politically. Instead, he trumpeted domestic oil drilling and “clean coal” technology, which is still more oxymoron than reality.

Challenger Mitt Romney was even worse. At the Republican National Convention, he mentioned climate change only mockingly. “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet,” he said. “My promise is to help you and your family.”

There is strong scientific consensus on climate change, but acknowledging and addressing it remains politically controversial. That is because fighting climate change would threaten economic interests invested in the status quo — and because it would require citizens and businesses to make some sacrifices. Heaven forbid that any American should be asked to sacrifice, even if the future of mankind may depend on it.

And that brings us to a second obvious lesson from Hurricane Sandy.

For at least three decades, many political leaders — especially Republicans — have won elections by offering simplistic and unrealistic solutions to increasingly difficult problems. Tell voters what they want to hear, then blame the consequences on the other guys.

Storms such as hurricanes Sandy and Katrina underscore the inadequacy of our aging national infrastructure — and the likelihood that climate change will force us to repair and rebuild it more frequently in the future.

Rather than cutting taxes, piling up debt and wasting money on unnecessary weapons systems and wars of choice, we should be investing in the physical and human infrastructure that will keep America safe, secure and economically prosperous in the future.

Natural disasters remind us that sufficient and efficient government is essential. During the GOP primary, Romney suggested that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s work could be turned back to the states, or even privatized.

Since Hurricane Sandy, though, he has ignored reporters’ questions on the subject.

If religious leaders are seeking sermon topics from this pre-election hurricane, here are a few possibilities: greed, selfishness, complacency and why leadership matters.


‘War on coal’ avoids the real challenge, responsibility

June 12, 2011

Did you hear we are at war? I don’t mean the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the covert wars in Libya and Yemen or even the nebulous wars against terrorism and drugs.

I mean the “War on Coal.” All of Kentucky’s politicians are talking about it — at least all of those who want campaign contributions and support from the coal industry.

“They have declared war, war on Kentucky’s coal industry,” U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell said of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a speech to the Kentucky Coal Association earlier this month. The U.S. Senate’s Republican leader claimed the EPA wants to see the “coal industry driven out of business altogether.”

The next day, state Rep. Jim Gooch, a Providence Democrat who heads the state House Natural Resources Committee, went even further as he complained about the EPA’s efforts to make coal-fired power plants reduce their air and water pollution.

“This is a war on Kentucky,” Gooch exclaimed during a hearing, “because what we’re talking about is totally destroying our economy.”

And don’t forget Gov. Steve Beshear’s tantrum against the EPA during his State of the Commonwealth address in February. “Get off our backs!” Beshear bellowed. “Get off our backs!”

So what is this War on Coal? A lot of baloney, that’s what. It is a public relations campaign by an industry with a long history of maximizing profits by disregarding environmental stewardship and mine safety.

The coal industry is apoplectic because federal regulators are doing their jobs more aggressively now than they did during the Bush administration. The EPA is enforcing the Clean Air Act by requiring industries to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions that cause climate change. The agency also is trying to curb destructive surface-mining practices and reduce water pollution.

Some politicians and business executives have responded by claiming that climate change is a myth, despite overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary. Others just fear costs. But the costs of pollution have always existed; we just haven’t paid enough of them with our power bills and corporate bottom lines. We pay for them with sickness, premature death and degradation of our fragile planet.

I was encouraged to see that the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has invited journalist James Fallows to be a keynote speaker at its annual meeting July 12 in Louisville. He will talk about his December cover story in The Atlantic magazine, Why the Future of Clean Energy is Dirty Coal.

Fallows’ article — click here to read it online at — is excellent. For one thing, it punctures illusions on both the political right and left. Yes, climate change is real and carbon emissions must be dramatically reduced to avert disaster. No, renewable energy cannot replace coal — at least not in our lifetimes.

Because coal will be essential to civilization for generations, the sensible thing is to figure out how to mine and burn it more cleanly, Fallows wrote. Most of that responsibility must fall to the United States and China, which together produce more than 40 percent of man-made greenhouse gasses and bring different strengths to the fight to reduce them.

Fallows profiled U.S. and Chinese scientists who are working on innovative solutions. The most intriguing experiment may be “underground coal gasification.” Jets of oxygen, mixed with steam or chemicals, are blasted into coal seams deep underground. That creates a chemical reaction, producing a gas that can be piped out and burned to create electricity. The process avoids the need for traditional mining and leaves most of coal’s nasty by-products underground.

Kentucky politicians and business leaders could learn a lot from Fallows’ thinking, which transcends ideology to see the coal issue for what it really is — a technology problem to be solved.

Rather than fighting a “war” to protect pollution, Kentucky’s leaders should look past political clichés and entrenched economic interests.

They should position Kentucky to be a leader in meeting the technical and economic challenge of making “clean coal” a reality instead of an oxymoron. It won’t be cheap, easy or painless for anyone, but it is the smart thing to do.

A film about climate change even skeptics can love

June 6, 2011

Kentucky-born filmmaker Peter Byck has no doubt that climate change is real, that human activity is causing it and that people must take significant action to stop it from destroying the planet.

But when he set out to make his new documentary, Carbon Nation, Byck didn’t necessarily want to change skeptics’ minds. He wanted to show them that many remedies for climate change are worth doing for other reasons — like making and saving money.

“We wanted to make a positive film — a solutions-based, no-blame, no-shame movie,” Byck said.

Carbon Nation will have its first Lexington screening at 7 p.m. Tuesday at The Kentucky Theatre. The screening is sponsored by the Kentucky Energy & Innovation Roundtable and the Idea Festival in Louisville. Tickets are $10.

Byck was born and raised in Louisville and studied filmmaking at the California Institute of the Arts. He has worked a lot in the film industry, including being assistant to the producer of the 1988 hit A Fish Called Wanda.

But his passion is making documentaries about society’s relationship to the environment. One of his earlier films, Garbage, won the documentary award at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 1996.

Carbon Nation includes a tutorial on climate change that is less preachy and more solutions-oriented than former Vice President Al Gore’s 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth. Much of Carbon Nation is a series of profiles of people who are doing creative things to make or save money, operate businesses more efficiently, make the environment cleaner, make people’s lives better, and fight climate change, whether or not they intend to. Among them:

Cliff Etheredge has created one of the world’s largest “wind farms” in West Texas by organizing small ranchers like himself. Windmills generate electricity for utilities — and steady income for the ranchers.

Retired Army Col. Dan Nolan tells how the military is reducing energy consumption in Iraq by finding more fuel-efficient ways to cool temporary buildings. In addition to saving money, it is putting fewer military convoy drivers in harm’s way.

Arthur Rosenfeld, the father of California’s building and appliance efficiency standards, talks about how his work has saved consumers billions of dollars during the past three decades. Former CIA Director James Woolsey is promoting plug-in hybrid cars. And Bernie Karl in Alaska is doing pioneering work with geothermal energy that is saving companies he works with a fortune.

Byck said Karl is an example of someone fighting climate change while still doubting its existence. “I realized that you didn’t have to believe that climate change was a problem to do all these things that could solve climate change,” Byck said. “He just likes clean air and water, and he doesn’t like smokestacks.”

Carbon Nation has been showing in theaters around the country for the past year to build credibility for broader distribution. “The trick with any film, especially a small indie film like this, is getting more people to see it,” he said.

Byck said a major studio is negotiating on-demand video rights with cable companies. The film will soon be sold in Wal-Mart stores and through, he said.

While Carbon Nation has a natural audience among environmentalists and liberals, Byck said he is especially proud that many conservatives have seen and liked it. The film recently received a glowing review on the blog of the Evangelical Environmental Network.

Byck hopes the film also will be seen by more business people, especially in states such as Kentucky, where energy conservation and renewable energy development could be big business opportunities.

Byck said solution-oriented films like his can be an antidote to poisonous politics and media portrayals of America as a polarized society. He thinks the only way to solve major problems is by finding a “respectful center” in which to discuss them.

“The film is doing what we wanted it to do,” Byck said. “It’s reaching a lot of people like my Uncle Phil, who is a very conservative guy. We wanted to present an argument that made sense to him — an economic argument, a national security argument.”

So what does Uncle Phil think of Carbon Nation?

“He loves the film,” Byck said. “I was relieved.”

How will Kentucky cope with climate change?

December 9, 2009

Wow. Talk about climate change.

The change in our environmental climate may be the same gradual warming that most of the world’s scientists have observed since about 1970. But the political and economic climate for dealing with it changed dramatically just this week.

Leaders from 193 nations gathered Monday in Copenhagen to plan climate-change policy amid signs that major polluters such as China, India and the United States may be getting serious about addressing the problem.

Also Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided to regulate greenhouse gasses as pollution. That could lead to mandates for less-polluting power plants, factories and cars — and higher prices for energy produced by burning coal and oil and more emphasis on conservation and development of alternative energy.

What will all of this changing climate mean for Kentucky?

About 200 people —students, educators, energy executives, legislators and average citizens — gathered Tuesday at the Marriott Griffin Gate to discuss those issues.

Down the hall, business leaders and legislators were discussing it, too, at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s annual policy conference. During a break, Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, joked about the different perceptions and outlooks of those at the two gatherings.

But the underlying truth was clear to everyone: change is here, and Kentucky must deal with it. How well we do that will determine whether Kentuckians prosper or suffer in the future.

The Regional Climate Change Forum’s lead sponsor was the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. The corporation’s president, Kris Kimel, observed that Americans always tend to underestimate the speed and impact of technological change and overestimate the cost of adapting to it.

That’s because the economy is increasingly driven by technology and innovation. Adapting to less-polluting forms of energy will present economic opportunities for Kentucky as well as costs and disruptions, Kimel said.

Kentucky’s coal deposits have given us some of the nation’s cheapest electricity and a lure for energy-intensive industries. But rates are rising because of a variety of economic factors, and regulation to reduce greenhouse gasses and address coal’s other environmental problems will make that power even more costly.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that we waste a lot of electricity now because it’s cheap, and higher prices will provide more incentives for conservation and developing alternative energy. That will reduce the need for costly new power plants and help Kentucky transition away from coal as reserves are depleted.

Most electric utilities are moving in that direction, said John Malloy of EON-US, which owns Kentucky Utilities and Louisville Gas & Electric.

As utilities study better technology for generating and delivering power — everything from solar, wind and landfill methane to better power grids — they also are looking at the potential of conservation.

“It’s no longer simply a supply-side game,” he said.

Kentucky’s political leaders have often been allies in the coal industry’s efforts to resist regulation. But they also have done some progressive things recently. Those include new, stricter environmental standards for state buildings and Finance Secretary Jonathan Miller’s Clean Energy Corps, an effort to weatherize homes for low- and middle-income families.

Forum participants stressed that adapting to climate change will involve a lot more than energy and and its related economic issues.

Stuart Foster of the Kentucky Climate Center at Western Kentucky University said one of his biggest concerns is that new climate patterns may make Kentucky’s droughts longer and more severe.

“Extended drought over multiple years could be devastating for Kentucky,” Foster said.

We also must anticipate and cope with climate change’s impact on agriculture and sensitive natural ecosystems, where a little change can have big and unpredictable consequences.

Kentucky’s ability to adapt will require education, research and the ability to act quickly to mitigate damage and take advantage of economic opportunities.

“We can’t predict all of these changes,” Kimel said. “We have to get out ahead of them with our imagination.”

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

December 5, 2009

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.

UK coal conference showed the challenge ahead

November 11, 2009

There was a remarkable public forum at the University of Kentucky on Thursday. The moderator began by saying it reminded him of the old song Which Side Are You On?

Florence Reece, a miner’s wife, wrote that song about the economic controversies surrounding coal in Harlan County in the 1930s. Thursday’s forum, sponsored by UK’s College of Engineering, focused on the global controversies surrounding coal today.

What made the forum remarkable was that it might have been the first time that so many coal executives, environmentalists and community activists sat together in the same room and discussed those controversies openly and, for the most part, honestly.

Some speakers on both sides fell into the old traps — misrepresentations, oversimplifications and emotional appeals. But most stuck to facts. Things are different when you’re addressing your biggest critics, rather than preaching to your choir.

Historian Ron Bryant noted that coal’s effects on human health and the environment have been controversial since mining began in Kentucky in the 1820s. “But the need for coal stopped all arguments,” he said.

Coal powered the industrial revolution, and it fuels our modern lifestyle. But the global debate over climate change is making people realize that the future will be much different than the past.

Most of the world’s scientists and policy makers agree that climate change is real and that burning coal poses a threat to civilization. Meanwhile, there’s increased public opposition to surface and mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia and the environmental damage it causes.

“We can no longer in this state maintain the status quo,” said Joe Blackburn, a regulator for more than three decades who heads the Lexington field office of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining.

“Dealing with change is never easy,” he said. “But change is a normal part of life.”

Some coal executives seemed surprised when economists outlined their industry’s declining influence in Kentucky.

Coal employment has fallen sharply since its peak in 1980 as mining has become more mechanized. Coal accounts for only 1 percent of statewide employment — and only 3.5 percent when spin-off jobs are included.

Mining creates some good-paying jobs, but it also crowds out other economic opportunities in coal-producing counties, some of which are among the nation’s poorest.

Coal production accounts for only 1.45 percent of gross state product — and it’s falling. Kentucky coal production peaked in 1988, and the market has shifted to cheaper coal from Western states.

Coal has kept Kentucky’s electricity rates among the cheapest in the nation. But those rates are rising and will continue to rise in a carbon-conscious world that will require coal to bear more of its true cost.

And here’s the rub: Coal now provides about half the nation’s electricity — and 92 percent in Kentucky. Renewable energy sources aren’t commercially advanced enough to replace coal, and they won’t be for years, if not decades.

Renewable energy and perhaps nuclear power must be developed soon, because we’re running out of coal. Kentucky might have only 20 years of coal left — or maybe 100 years, with improved mining technology and the right market conditions. But everyone agrees that coal is a finite resource whose end is in sight.

The forum wasn’t all doom and gloom; there was encouraging news. UK researchers talked about what they’re doing to develop renewable energy and lessen the environmental damage of mining and burning coal, and to reforest and reclaim mined land.

The unmistakable takeaway from this daylong “fair and balanced” discussion of coal’s future was that the solutions aren’t simple and the trade-offs won’t be painless, either for the coal industry or for the energy-consuming public.

But Kentucky is at a crossroads.

The coal industry can continue to deny climate change, fight regulation and use scare tactics to delay the inevitable. Or it can work with scientists and its critics to find more responsible ways to mine and use the coal we have left.

Kentucky’s political and business leaders can try to preserve the status quo, as they did for years with tobacco. Or they can focus on energy conservation. They can support research. And they can develop the energy technologies and industries that must eventually replace coal.

If last week’s public forum showed one thing, it’s that there’s only one logical path, no matter which side you’re on.

New approaches to Kentucky’s energy challenges

April 16, 2009

A couple hundred leaders from academia, politics and business gathered Thursday in Lexington to talk about energy and Kentucky — where we are, where we need to be and how we might get there.

It was the third Energizing Kentucky conference, organized by the universities of Kentucky and Louisville and Centre and Berea colleges. The keynote speaker was Carol Browner, President Obama’s assistant for energy and climate change.

First, some bad news:

Coal provides 92 percent of Kentucky’s electricity, at some of the nation’s cheapest rates. But dealing with coal’s environmental problems could raise those costs dramatically, turning a big asset into a big liability.

Rising power rates will hurt Kentucky, the nation’s fourth-poorest state. Kentucky ranks 6th nationally in gross state product from manufacturing, much of which depends on cheap power. We’re the nation’s third-largest automaker. We produce 40 percent of the nation’s aluminum and 30 percent of its stainless steel.

Kentuckians waste a lot of electricity. We have the nation’s fifth-lowest power rates, but 20 other states have lower average monthly bills.

Since America first became alarmed about its dependence on foreign oil in the 1970s, that dependence has nearly doubled. Gasoline prices will shoot back up as the global economy recovers and demand increases.

Now, some good news:

Everyone at the conference seemed to be singing from the same songbook, more or less. Nobody was saying the solution to our energy challenges is “drill baby, drill” — or “dig Bubba, dig.” That’s a significant change.

Recent announcements about the state’s new role in developing high-tech automobile batteries had everyone in a hopeful mood.

Both Rocky Adkins, a legislative leader who works for a coal company, and Tom Fitzgerald, one of Kentucky’s most ardent environmental activists, had mostly good things to say about how state leaders are now approaching energy issues.

Gov. Steve Beshear’s state energy plan, announced last November, is a progressive document. The first three of its seven points note the need for more conservation and renewable energy. The next three deal with developing more environmentally friendly ways to use coal.

The last point in the state plan suggests reconsideration of Kentucky’s ban on nuclear energy, which remains controversial. (To read the energy plan, go to: and click on the Energy Independence tab.)

“It is, on balance, a sound and thoughtful plan,” said Fitzgerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council. “But we have our work cut out for us.”

The reality is that Kentucky must continue to rely on coal for many years to come. While the state is investing heavily in research for commercial carbon capture and “clean coal” technologies, they are now more dream than reality.

Interesting work is being done by Alltech and other Kentucky companies on bio-fuels. And there’s a lot of potential for small-scale solar power, especially for such things as home water heating. Kentucky’s rivers could produce a lot more hydro power.

Browner said the keys to energy independence will be developing new technologies and using energy more wisely to create both a strong economy and a clean environment.

“If you look at our history, you can see that we can have both,” said Browner, whose previous federal job was heading the Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton Administration.

One creative approach is a new public-private partnership called Kentucky’s Clean Energy Corps, which state Treasurer Jonathan Miller described as “weatherization on steroids.”

The program will use federal stimulus money to create jobs and improve energy efficiency in the homes of 10,000 modest-income Kentuckians. It also will try to engage young people in energy efficiency and conservation efforts.

In a ballroom at the Hyatt Regency, where the conference was held, there were a couple of dozen exhibits of energy-related projects by Kentucky students.

On one side of the room were displays of high-tech research by university students. On the other side were school science projects. Students from Russell High School in Greenup County showed photos of their school’s solar collectors. Excited first graders from Hannah McClure Elementary in Winchester told about their recycling campaign.

My favorite was a project from Chenoweth Elementary in Louisville. It was a box lined with aluminum foil and covered with plastic wrap. On a sunny day, the solar-powered oven can cook a s’more in about 15 minutes.

OK, so a solar-powered s’more oven won’t do much to solve Kentucky’s energy challenges. But the kind of creativity those two fifth-grade girls put into it just might.