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.

Blaming coal’s problems on regulators is a strategy for losers

August 12, 2012

We curse the cop when we see lights flashing in our rear-view mirror.

Kentuckians are an independent people. We have good reasons to speed! Besides, speed limits restrict our “freedom” and take away our “liberty.” They are downright un-American, forced upon us by politicians and government bureaucrats.

Of course, we know in our heart that the cop is just doing his duty for our own good. Without speed limits, crashes would claim a greater toll than the already obscene 32,000 deaths nationally each year, one-third of which are caused by speeding.

It is harder to visualize the tens of thousands of people who die prematurely or are sickened by air and water pollution caused by irresponsible coal mining and burning. This is a largely hidden toll, with no graphic video for television newscasts. But health researchers can prove and document it.

The National Resources Defense Council reported last week that Kentucky is the worst state in the nation for toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants. It blamed that fact on state officials doing too little to force utilities to clean up.

The coal industry acts as if it is above the law. Kentucky government too often behaves as if it is owned and operated by coal interests.

Politicians love to rant about the Obama administration’s “war on coal.”

What they mean is that the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Surface Mining and other federal agencies are, for the first time in years, being better cops. They are enforcing environmental-protection laws, and they are trying to make state regulators enforce them, too.

Consider this recent example, at a joint meeting of the General Assembly’s Natural Resources and the Environment committee on Aug. 2.

The issue at hand was OSM’s demand that Kentucky follow the 1977 federal surface-mining law and require mining companies to post adequate reclamation bonds. If a company cleans up mined land as required by law, its bond is refunded. If it goes broke before the work is done, the bond is supposed to pay for cleanup.

The federal government has for years urged Kentucky to require higher bonds because in many of the 15 to 25 bond forfeiture cases each year there is too little money to do the work.

The Herald-Leader’s John Cheves reported that in an average year, the state Division of Abandoned Mine Lands faces more than $4 million in unfunded reclamation costs because bonds are too small. Land is left scarred, and neighbors’ property values are diminished.

The Beshear administration says that requiring adequate bonds would be “impractical and unaffordable” for many coal companies. The state Energy and Environment Cabinet has proposed raising bond requirements and creating a pool financed by fees on coal operations to help pay costs when an individual company’s reclamation bond falls short.

That seems like a reasonable solution, but you can bet it won’t happen unless federal regulators keep up the pressure. Most of us would find it reasonable to require an industry to clean up after itself. But to coal-industry apologists, it’s war.

“There is an assault on Kentucky, and really our way of life,” Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, complained at the Aug. 2 meeting.

“I don’t want to roll over dead and play stoolie in front of the federal government, either,” said Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, “because I believe in states’ rights.”

Despite earning their livings from coal-related businesses, Gooch and Hall are the chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Natural Resources and the Environment committee. No conflicts of interest there.

Federal regulators are not waging a “war” on coal. They are enforcing laws designed to limit pollution, sickness and premature death, which study after study have attributed to irresponsible coal mining and burning.

In the short term, the coal industry will find plenty of allies in this phony “war on coal.” Kentucky miners are desperate for jobs, and other businesses like having electricity that has always been artificially cheap because the full cost of producing it hasn’t been taken into account.

Western coal, cheap natural gas, renewable energy technology and the reality of climate change cannot be ignored. If Kentucky’s coal industry wants a future, it must clean up its act and find ways to reduce the health and environmental damage of its product.

The coal industry faces inevitable change, the kind of seismic economic shift that Kentucky slaveholders and tobacco growers once faced. Continuing to blame the environmental cops whose lights are now in the rear-view mirror is a strategy for losers.


Focus on Kentucky coal’s future, not this futile ‘war’

July 10, 2011

Kentuckians love to embrace a lost cause, especially one that deserves to be lost.

The state stayed in the Union during the Civil War, yet many Kentuckians switched sides and mythologized the Confederacy after the war was over. Long after everyone else recognized smoking’s deadly toll, Kentucky leaders remained apologists for tobacco.

Now, federal regulators are finally acting to curb the damage mining and burning coal does to human health and the environment. So where are Kentucky’s leaders? Many have stormed the ramparts, vowing to fight what they call the “war on coal.”

The hollering grew louder Thursday when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced new standards that will require utilities in 27 Eastern states to reduce power-plant emissions. The EPA says the stricter limits will prevent tens of thousands of premature deaths, heart attacks and cases of bronchitis and asthma, creating up to $280 billion in annual benefits by 2014 — well beyond the cost of compliance.

These science-based standards have been in the works for years, and big business has been fighting them every step of the way. But pollution is becoming harder to ignore as health-care costs rise and the damage is more obvious and measurable.

Kentucky is the third-largest coal- producing state, and federal regulators have gotten more aggressive about reining in destructive mining practices.

Federal regulators eventually will limit carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal, a major contributor to disastrous climate change. Yet, many Kentuckians continue to deny climate science.

Burning coal generates more than 90 percent of electricity in Kentucky and 46 percent nationally. Many business and political leaders complain that the economy can’t bear the cost of cleaning up after coal, which will include higher power rates. As if sickness, death and pollution don’t have huge costs, too.

But here’s the thing: We will be burning coal for decades, because we must. No other energy source can replace coal any time soon. Environmentalists who demonize coal are ignoring reality just as much as the business people and politicians who demonize regulators and fight to protect pollution.

“I wish we could get away from this ‘war on coal’; it doesn’t help anybody,” said John Morgan, a mining engineer and president of Morgan Worldwide Consultants Inc. “We should be having debates about facts and not hyperbole, and quit demonizing everybody.”

Morgan’s Lexington-based firm has found a niche helping the mining industry and regulators figure out more environmentally friendly ways to mine. “If you’re going to mine coal, you need to do it both economically and with less impact, and realize that mining is a temporary land use,” he said. “It’s not just the industry that needs to think more creatively, but the regulators.”

That means designing mines that produce more coal while disturbing less land and fewer streams. And it means more planning for uses of reclaimed mine land.

Morgan points out that tighter regulation hasn’t hurt coal production. And after nearly three decades of decline, the number of Kentucky jobs in underground and surface mining has been rising since 2004. “People say the war on coal is hurting employment, but the numbers tell a different story,” he said.

One reason more jobs are being created is that mine productivity has been falling since a peak in 2000. Easy-to-mine Kentucky coal is becoming more scarce, so the trend of bigger machines and fewer miners is reversing. “As productivity goes down, it’s going to mean more people,” Morgan said.

“Long-term, there’s going to be more underground mining because easily minable surface reserves are almost gone,” he said.

Kentucky mines will get smaller. Permits will need to be more sophisticated. And all of that means there will be more demand for well-trained mining professionals, even as some work is automated. “The biggest long-term challenge is the human resource side,” Morgan said.

The lost cause that so many Kentuckians have embraced is not coal but the idea we can continue mining and burning it in the same old ways. Rather than fighting a doomed “war” to preserve the past, our leaders should focus on the future and the role Kentucky coal must play.

Think twice before bashing ‘government regulation’

January 8, 2011

Last week’s newspapers were filled with vows from leaders of the new Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives to eliminate “job-killing” government regulation.

But there also were several reports showing why regulation is needed — in Kentucky and elsewhere — and how a lack of effective regulation helped create many of our nation’s problems.

A favorite target of the anti-regulation crowd is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has become more interested in doing its job since Barack Obama became president.

A news story last week reported the formal end of a four-year legal case in which the EPA forced Lexington to fix problems with its sanitary and storm sewers. For years, those problems caused streams to be polluted and sewage to flow from manholes during heavy rains.

Because Lexington’s sewer problems were ignored for so long, the fix will be expensive: as much as $300 million over 10 years, plus a $425,000 fine for the city’s persistent violation of the Clean Water Act.

City officials had long ignored the problems. Then, in 2006, a group of local citizens threatened to sue the city unless the EPA stepped in. That prompted the EPA to file a lawsuit that forced the Urban County Council and Mayor Jim Newberry to act.

Were it not for the EPA, would Lexington be fixing its sewers now? “The answer is no,” said Scott White, an attorney for the citizens group. “The EPA had the juice and the resources to make it happen.”

Other news stories told of renewed battles between the EPA and the coal industry, whose frequent violations of the Clean Water Act are part of a long history of environmental damage that coal mining has inflicted on Appalachia.

Mine safety regulators also are getting tough following accidents last year that killed 48 miners, including six in Kentucky. That was the highest number of mine deaths in any year since 1992, and it included 26 miners killed at a West Virginia mine owned by Massey Energy.

Other news reports chronicled an out-of-court settlement that gives the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration new power to crack down on safety violations at a Massey mine in Pike County. The case is likely to give regulators more clout in dealing with other mine operators who persistently violate safety rules.

Beyond Kentucky, headlines last week told of the initial findings of a presidential commission investigating BP’s Deepwater Horizon well disaster, which killed 11 men and spilled nearly five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The commission said BP and contractors Transocean and Halliburton exercised poor management and cut corners to save time and money. Commission co-chairman Bob Graham also faulted regulators, saying they “lacked the authority, the necessary resources and the technical expertise to prevent” the disaster.

Critics can always find examples of government over-regulation that make good anecdotes. But the consequences of under-regulation are often more severe. And don’t forget that Wall Street deregulation was a major cause of the economic crisis from which we are still trying to recover.

Expect to hear more calls for less government regulation, especially from politicians who fill their pockets with corporate campaign contributions. Some will cleverly say they are not against sensible regulation, they just think it should be handled at the state or local level, where they know it can easily be neutered by economic and political pressures.

If you want to see what happens when industry is free from regulation, look at China’s coal industry, where mine fatalities occur at an average rate of 200 a month, or the oil industry’s wells in Nigeria, where decades of frequent spills have turned vast sections of the country into wasteland.

Balancing economic interests with human safety and the environment is never easy. But ask yourself what kind of country you want to live in and pass down to future generations. Regulation actually may “kill” a job now and then, but the lack of it can be much more deadly.

Will we learn anything from the BP oil spill?

June 19, 2010

I have never been one of those Christians who see the active hand of God in everything that happens, good or bad.

For example, I doubt the lightning bolt that destroyed the “Touchdown Jesus” statue in Ohio last week was an act of divine art criticism. More likely, it was the inevitable result of building a giant steel-supported structure on a flat landscape. Sooner or later, the right thunderstorm was bound to come along.

I feel the same way about the BP oil well that has been gushing 60,000 barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico each day since an April 20 explosion killed 11 workers.

As we find out more about this “accident,” which could devastate the Gulf Coast’s environment and economy for decades, it seems to be the inevitable result of a very human trait: greed. Americans want cheap oil and oil companies want big profits, so corners were cut, oversight was lax and greed trumped expertise. Sooner or later, it was bound to happen.

Still, there seems to be a certain providence in the timing of the BP disaster. It can teach us a couple of important lessons, if we are smart enough to pay attention.

The first lesson is the fallacy of this whole notion that government should regulate business as little as possible. We have heard that drumbeat for three decades, and it has almost become conventional wisdom. Some of it comes from libertarian idealists, but most of it comes from corporations that don’t want to be regulated and politicians who take a lot of money from them.

Inevitable results of this laissez faire attitude include the financial meltdown and the steady degradation of our natural environment for the benefit of coal and oil companies.

Sensitive to public anger over the BP disaster, these politicians are making fewer “drill baby drill” speeches. Abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency no longer seems like such a good idea. But make no mistake: There are still plenty of people who think corporations should be allowed do as they please, no matter how big a mess they leave for the rest of us to clean up.

Believing that multinational corporations will behave responsibly without government regulation is absurd. The New York Times had a chilling example last week in a report from Nigeria, where five decades of unregulated oil drilling has turned the Niger River Delta into a toxic wasteland.

The other lesson we should learn from BP’s gusher is the urgent need to find new energy sources to replace our diminishing supplies of oil and coal. The challenges are both technological and political, and they are closely linked.

Oil companies don’t drill deep-sea wells and coal companies don’t blow up mountains for the fun of it; they do it because we pay them to. The only way to change that is to create energy technologies that will make fossil fuels obsolete. Those technologies could create whole new industries for the economy of the future.

That will require a lot more scientific research. Andrew Revkin noted on The New York Times’ Dot Earth blog last week that while the federal government invests $75 billion a year on military research, $65 billion on health research and $28 billion on space research, it invests only $22 billion on energy research. Adjusted for inflation, federal energy research peaked in 1979.

Why isn’t there more? A big reason is that the oil and coal industries don’t want it. They spend millions each year lobbying to preserve the status quo and convince people that the scientific consensus on climate change is a myth. For them, innovation would be bad for business.

Revkin noted that Obama’s science adviser, John P. Holdren, has suggested that funding for energy technology research, development and demonstration could be tripled with a 2-cent increase in the federal gasoline tax. Seems like a good investment to me.

Without better energy technology, we can look forward to more catastrophes like what we are seeing along the Gulf Coast, not to mention smaller incidents that don’t make headlines. Oil-soaked bayous and strip-mined mountains are the inevitable result of maintaining our energy status quo, and they must be a wake-up call for change.

Then again, maybe God does work in mysterious ways.

The oil-damaged shoreline in the Northern reaches of Barataria Bay, La., on June 17. Associated Press Photo by Gerald Herbert