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Ky. lawmakers vote to ‘protect fossil fuel industry’

On Monday the United Nations secretary general warned the planet is “sleepwalking into a climate catastrophe,” but that’s not what concerns Republican Sen. Robby Mills of Henderson. 

During a meeting of Kentucky’s House Natural Resources and Energy Committee on Thursday, Mills said the fossil fuels industry is under attack. 

“Major banks and investment firms are denying lending to investments in fossil fuel companies in an effort to promote green investments and political agendas,” Mills said. 

To that end, Mills is sponsoring a bill that would require financial companies working with the state to cease boycotts of the fossil fuel industry. If they don’t, the state has to divest all public investments from the firm.

Senate Bill 205 also requires the state treasurer to draft and maintain a list of financial companies that have engaged in energy boycotts. During the committee meeting, State Treasurer Allison Ball said the bill is important to support energy independence. 

“This statute would be really important to make sure we are protecting signature industries in Kentucky,” Ball said. 

The House passed the bill Thursday afternoon, it now heads back to the Senate to consider the House changes.

On the floor, Chair of the House Natural Resources committee Rep. Jim Gooch of Providence, a Republican, lamented that people “actually worship at the altar of the cult of climate change.” Gooch is a longtime climate change denier

Speaking at an economic sustainability conference Monday, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres reiterated the planet has to reduce emissions 45% by 2030 to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. More than a hundred banks around the world have committed to divesting from fossil fuel resources to aid in the effort as part of the Net-Zero Banking Alliance.  

In Kentucky, climate change will bring more extreme weather events, including more heat waves, droughts and floods. It even appears to be shifting tornado alley further into western Kentucky.

Tom Fitzgerald, environmental attorney for the Kentucky Resources Council, told lawmakers that the legislation goes against what governments should be doing to address climate change.

“I think we all understand the climate is changing, dramatically, rapidly, dangerously in some cases, and that transition is underway and is inevitable and is necessary,” Fitzgerald said.

In response to Treasurer Ball’s statement that the bill would protect Kentucky industries, FitzGerald expressed doubt that it would help the state’s flailing fossil fuel industry. Financial institutions are simply acting in the best interest of shareholders, he said.

“In fact, there are federal remedies if they fail to do that,” FitzGerald said. 

Nonetheless, Republican Rep. Randy Bridges of Paducah voted in favor of the bill, saying it would help protect state resources.

“We are in a new age where we are focus diversity, discrimination, equity and I stand for that, but that’s a two-way street and we’ve got to protect our resources here in Kentucky,” Bridges said.

The Kentucky Coal Association remains a powerful lobbying force at the Legislature — one representative even made sure to point out the president was sitting in the audience during the hearing. Nonetheless, coal’s hold over the state is more symbolic than economic at this point.

For example, fewer than 4,300 people remain employed by coal mines in Kentucky, according to the latest figures from the Energy and Environment Cabinet. Contrast that with the state’s forestry industry, which was estimated to directly employ 27,000 people in 2020,  according to the University of Kentucky.

Republican U.S. Congressman Andy Barr of Kentucky is pushing similar legislation at the federal level requiring banks to consider returns for investors rather than social or environmental goals.

This story has been updated. 

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.