FRANKFORT—A state legislative hearing Friday on proposed federal regulations on carbon dioxide emissions became a flashpoint in Kentucky's Republican gubernatorial primary.
Lawmakers on an energy subcommittee heard testimony from Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary Len Peters on how the state must respond to regulations proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, which seek to lower carbon dioxide emissions in the state by about 17 percent by 2030, with a national target reduction of 30 percent that same year.
Calling climate change "a global issue," Peters' presentation included an overview of centuries' worth of climate science to put the EPA regulations into context for the lawmakers, many of whom have taken a hostile stance toward the federal agency since the proposed regulations were first announced in June.
By 2040, 57 percent of the state's coal-fired power plants will be retired, which echoed other studies that show Kentucky's reliance on coal will diminish in the future, Peters said.
The portion of coal that comprise's the state's energy portfolio will shrink to 78 percent, he said. Currently, that figure is about 90 percent.
Lawmakers seized on the opportunity, taking swipes at the Obama Administration over the EPA proposal. They also lamented the economic advantage they believe such regulations will afford China and India, countries that wouldn't be hindered by the regulations, allowing them to command cheaper energy prices.
Rep. Jim Gooch, a Democrat from Providence who co-owns a company related to the manufacture of coal mining equipment, couched the likely effect of the regulations in gloomy terms. "We're about to destroy our economy, and maybe our national security," he said.
But Peters contended there are other forces than the EPA that are contributing to the decline of coal, namely the prevalence of cheap natural gas and the fact that remaining coal seams are harder and more expensive to mine.
Peters said carbon sequestration technology isn't yet viable for commercial application, and that the state's coal-fired power plants cannot at the moment meet the EPA's goal of reducing carbon emissions to 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide emitted per megawatt hour.
According to a recent Public Policy Polling poll, 44 percent of Kentuckians support the EPA's proposed 30 percent targets, with 40 percent opposing and 16 percent undecided.
A Coal-Fired Call for Resignation
After making comments about the devastation that the coal industry's decline has wrought on his district, Rep. Tim Couch, a Republican from Hyden in Eastern Kentucky, called for the resignation of a colleague, Rep. Tom Burch, a Louisville Democrat, over Burch's recent comments about the coal industry.
At a panel discussion at the Louisville Forum this week, Burch sparred with GOP House Floor Leader Rep. Jeff Hoover over several issues facing their chamber.
As Kentucky Public Radio partner station WFPL reported this week, "Burch said state leaders need to look at renewable energy as a future investment instead of job-killer. 'If we could get coal out of the way I'd think we would probably have a lot of good things going here,' he said.'"
Incensed by the Louisville Democrat's comments, Couch on Friday called for his colleague's resignation during the committee hearing. "Let's write a letter today," he said. "And I'll sign the letter for Tom Burch to resign, okay?"
In a released statement, Hoover attacked House Democratic leadership for their relative silence on Burch's comments. "I appreciate Rep. Couch recognizing our hard working coal miners, their families, and those who have lost their jobs because of the continued assault on coal by Obama," Hoover's statement read.
Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo also released a statement: "If we had every representative resign because they disagreed with another member, we'd have an empty chamber."
Republicans are attempting an historic gambit to regain control of that chamber after nearly a century of Democratic dominance. Democrats currently maintain a narrow eight seat majority in the state House.
House Democratic Floor Leader Rocky Adkins said Burch was expressing an "individual opinion," and that he will not be asked to resign. "He's not speaking on behalf of our caucus," Adkins said.
A message was left with Burch's Capitol office, but has not yet been returned.
Gubernatorial Proxy Battle
Burch's comments on the future of Kentucky coal are similar to those made last year by Agriculture Commisioner James Comer, a Republican who recently announced his intention to run for governor in 2015. Comer told WFPL's Phillip Bailey in November 2013 that the state needs to "look beyond" coal.
"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.
"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."
In an interview with Kentucky Public Radio on Friday, Comer rebuked any similarity to Burch's comments. He accused Kentucky Public Radio of having "spun that story" with Joe Burgan, a spokesman for the Heiner campaign.
"Coal is the best source of energy," Comer said. "And I will do anything I can as governor to protect and promote Kentucky coal. Obama’s war on coal has been detrimental to East Kentucky, and we have to find industries to replace it."
Comer also touted his support from coal industry leaders, including Joe Craft, president of Alliance Resource Partners, and Nick Carter, a chief operating officer of Natural Resource Partners. Carter, who is set to retire soon defended Comer.
"Mr. Burch was attempting to suggest that we push the coal industry out of the way," Carter said. "Jamie wants the coal industry to be as strong as it can be, but recognizes that we need to diversify those economies."
Carter said that he is retiring at the end of the month, and is "[making] himself available" to the Comer campaign.
In a released statement, Heiner attempted to paint Comer with the same brush as Burch.
"This is an issue where Jamie and I fundamentally disagree," Heiner said. "He said that the coal industry's future doesn't look bright and we have to look beyond coal to something else. I think that with the proper leadership, the future of coal in Kentucky is very bright. We obviously differ on the future of coal—I agree with Rep. Couch, Jamie agrees with Rep. Burch.
"And that is why we have elections," the statement continued. "To give voters a chance to decide which vision they support."