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What Role Would Coal Play in a Grimes-McConnell Senate Race?


Now that Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes has announced her intention to seek the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, the speculation about how Grimes will campaign against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—and on what issues—has begun.  And even though both Grimes and McConnell have received support from the coal industry in the past, coal is still likely to be a major player in the campaign. Already, the National Republican Senatorial Committeehas launched a website highlighting the role coal plays in Kentucky’s economy and steps Democrats have taken to reduce the country’s reliance on coal in favor of cleaner technologies.Coal production in Eastern Kentucky has hit its lowest level since 1965, as the fuel faces tougher environmental regulations, declining accessible reserves, a lingering economic recession and unfavorable market conditions. But in the Western part of the state, the industry is faring slightly better. Western Kentucky coal production surpassed Eastern Kentucky production in the first quarter of this yearfor the first time.Over the past few years, the coal industry has mobilized supporters and voters using the “War on Coal” rhetoric (though it didn’t end up panning out during the 2012 presidential election in some key states like Ohio). A poll by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire showed that the percentage of Harlan and Letcher County residents that supported natural resource extraction grew between 2007 and 2011, and the Lexington Herald-Leader detailed the growing pro-coal sentiment in an article a few weeks ago.This means coal will likely be an issue in next year’s senate race, even if it’s between two candidates who both say they support the industry. Congressman Andy Barr managed to defeat the incumbent Ben Chandler last year, largely by tying the Blue Dog Democrat to President Obama, and McConnell’s campaign will try—and has already begun—to do the same to Grimes.Grimes isn’t helped by the fact that Obama announced a comprehensive plan to combat climate change last month…while the plan includes billions of dollars for advanced coal technology, the coal industry has focused on his proposal to set carbon dioxide emissions limits for both new and existing power plants. Coal-fired power plants release large amounts of carbon dioxide, which is contributing to climate change around the globe. Obama’s plan sets a goal of lowering the country’s carbon dioxide emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2017; to achieve those goals, some of the country’s energy mix will be switched to renewable sources and natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal.Al Cross is the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. He says Grimes won’t be able to avoid being tied to Obama and his energy policies, but she could counter it by taking a page from Joe Manchin of West Virginia’s playbook. The pro-coal Democrat won election in 2010; Grimes could campaign on a platform of getting more pro-coal Democrats into the Senate.But Cross says it’s a complicated issue. “None of these issues are black and white. It’s all a matter of degree, yet they get reduced to black and white descriptions,” Cross said. “It’s easy to see Alison Grimes as being as being slightly less supportive of the industry and slightly more supportive of environmental interests simply because she’s a Democrat and she’s not beholden to the coal industry. But that’s mere speculation on my part.”There’s also a difference between garnering support from coal companies and winning the miners’ union. The United Mine Workers of America doesn’t have a strong presence in Kentucky anymore, but the union still wields some national political clout. Cross says that could be a difference between McConnell and Grimes.“I think [Grimes] would be more inclined to support the interest of organized labor, given her father’s longtime connection to labor,” he said. “And McConnell has certainly been no great friend of mine safety.”Grimes has yet to release any official campaign statements on energy or labor issues.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.