In the battle to replace the retiring Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY), don’t expect either candidate to run afoul of Big Coal. Kentucky is one of the nation’s largest producers of environmentalists’ least-favorite fuel source, and both Republican nominee Rand Paul and Democratic nominee Jack Conway have made it clear that when it comes to energy policy, coal comes first.
“I’m going to judge any energy legislation by four criteria,” Conway told me in an interview over the weekend. “Number one: does it do the right thing by Kentucky coal?”
The other criteria are mostly related to coal’s influence on things in Kentucky, too. Conway wants an energy bill that he says will protect the state’s historically low energy rates, which he claims helps draw business into the state. On cap-and-trade, the phrase du jour in energy policy, Conway says he’s worried by a plan that allows “fat cats” to get rich trading pollution credits without much real benefit. He’s also concerned by an energy law that doesn’t produce a “level playing field” with other polluters around the globe.
In short, Conway is no, say, Barbara Boxer when it comes to energy policy. But that doesn’t mean Paul won’t try to paint him with a hemp-green brush anyway. Paul is making a huge issue of cap-and-trade, which he says Conway supported before he opposed it. Conway takes issue with that, claiming he’s been consistent on energy all along.
At Fancy Farm last week, Paul supporters walked around carrying flip-flops with “cap-and-trade” printed on them to highlight what they say is Conway’s shifting views on the subject. A Conway campaign staffer came up to me at the event to assure me that despite what Paul says, Conway does not support the cap-and-trade legislation that the Congress tried to enact this year. The staffer wanted to make it very clear that I knew that.
This is Kentucky after all.
It’s a state where, as I chatted with locals last weekend, I was told that Paul’s recent statement that mountain-top removal mining improves the land by making it flat for development is a pretty common view. Coal seams run deep in Kentucky, and I don’t just mean in the ground.
This is not to say that Conway doesn’t support alternative fuel production, or any of the other largely theoretical carbon-reducing techniques politicians on both sides of the line have mentioned on the campaign trail in recent years. In our interview, he spoke of “switchgrass” energy and “clean coal” technology. Conway said he hopes that Kentucky’s coal production know-how means the state “can go on the offense” and take the lead in making coal cleaner.
“Who knows where technology is going to take us in 15 years?” he told me. “[Coal] is a domestic energy source, and we need to invest in it.”
Even with Conway’s true-blue (or, I guess, true-sooty black) support for coal production, it appears unlikely that the coal industry will get behind him in the race against Paul. Last month, plans for a consortium of huge coal producers to get together and target “anti-coal” candidates with spending allowed by the Citizens United decision leaked. Conway was on the list of candidates the industry hopes to defeat.
But there’s another side to the industry, of course — coal miners. Conway’s campaign says his strong support for coal production can leverage workers to rally around him this fall. They point to other comments Paul made recently suggesting that the federal government has no business regulating coal mines as evidence the when the time comes, coal miners will turn out for Conway.
In the meantime, though, expect both Paul and Conway to sound basically the same on the trail when it comes to the issue of regulating what Kentucky’s coal industry pulls out of the ground in the Bluegrass State.