Agriculture Commissioner James Comer is challenging leaders in eastern Kentucky to accept the decline of coal production and invest in a new economy to help pull the region out of poverty.
"A lot of leaders in Eastern Kentucky keep talking about ‘coal is the answer and there is a war on coal.’ I’m a friend of coal. I support the coal industry. But the coal industry’s future doesn't look bright and we have to look beyond that and learn to develop a new economy in Eastern Kentucky," he says.
As WFPL's Erica Peterson reported in October, studies show coal's economic viability has been exaggerated and U.S. production levels have peaked in state's like Kentucky.
The cost of extracting coal is also going up while the number of viable coalfields are shrinking. For example, delivering a million BTUs of coal to a Kentucky power plant cost $1.39 in 2004 compared to $2.44 last year.
Comer is leading an effort to bring industrial hemp back to the state as a viable crop, which has earned bipartisan support. He is also Kentucky's only Republican statewide constitutional officer who is often mentioned as a top contender for governor in 2015.
Comer wouldn't specify which leaders were failing their constituents, but many will interpret his comments as a shot at Congressman Hal Rogers, who opposed hemp legalization and is rumored to be urging former Louisville councilman Hal Heiner to run for governor.
Asked about the agriculture commissioner saying leadership in Eastern Kentucky needs to adapt, Rogers pointed WFPL to an initiative between him and Gov. Steve Beshear to do just that.
From Roger's office:
"Two weeks ago, Governor Beshear and I announced a new initiative called SOAR, which stands for 'Shaping Our Appalachian Region.' Eastern Kentucky has lost more than 6,200 coal mining jobs in the last two years, so we're calling on leaders from across southern and eastern Kentucky to share innovative strategies and to develop new economic opportunities in the coal region. The initiative will kickoff with the SOAR Summit on December 9th at the East Kentucky Expo Center in Pikeville. More than 600 people have already registered to attend. To reserve your free spot, visit kydlgweb.ky.gov."
At a meeting in Somerset, Ky., earlier this month, Comer told a group of farmers he"cannot be controlled" by party bosses, which observers took as a shot a Rogers and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to stay out of the governor's race.
Perhaps seeking to end speculation of a rift, McConnell praised Comer's leadership as agriculture commissioner at a Veteran's Day event in Louisville this week.
But Comer says residents in the state's poorest region need a larger economic vision that will end the cycle of government dependency.
"I’m from part of Appalachia and I can say this with confidence, a lot of times we have leaders that I don’t think really have the best interest of their constituents at heart," Comer told WFPL. "We just need to look for new leaders and the people need to step up to the plate and be independent in voting for change in that part of the state."