Coal Politics

Everyone knows that Kentucky is a coal state. Year after year millions of tons of coal are mined from the eastern and western regions of Kentucky, generating billions of dollars for the coal and steel industries. Studies have been published stating that Kentucky’s coal industry generates from 18,000 direct jobs to the inflated figure of 200,000 indirect jobs. But what about the other 4.1 million people residing in Kentucky? Do they depend on coal mining?

Some would say the tax revenues generated by coal helps the state budget. Others argue that most of those tax revenues (and more) end up being spent fixing the various problems caused by the coal industry.

There are environmental clean ups that must be done, repairs to state highways after overloaded coal trucks haul on them, and you can’t discount the amount of money spent on the impoverished coalfield citizens who require state health care and financial support due to the high unemployment rates which–a direct result of a mono-economy created by the coal industry.  Others might say that Kentucky’s coal is what keeps electric rates cheap, when in fact most of the coal burned in Kentucky comes from out west in Wyoming.

So does “Big Coal” and coal politics help the other 4.1 million people in Kentucky?  Hold on to your desk chairs, you’re about to find out.

Energy efficiency is not being put at the forefront of Kentucky’s political agenda. Our building codes are outdated and do not incorporate energy efficiency as part of design, let alone sustainability in terms of water use and disposal. Little public funding is being put towards energy efficiency upgrades within public infrastructure or public transportation. Energy efficiency upgrades create jobs mind you, lots of jobs.

What’s worse. Right now, if you are low income and have poorly insulated house that consumes excess energy to heat and cool it, you can apply for and receive Low Income Home Energy Assistance Payments (LIHEAP). The government will cut you a check to help pay for your high energy bills. That is state and federal money that is going straight to electric and natural gas companies. Wouldn’t it make more sense to putting those funds towards paying people to insulate your home and cut down on the amount of energy you use to save you money?

Let me also mention “Feed in Tariffs” (FIT) which is a method by which power companies pay small time power producers for the power they produce from residential and commercial energy installations which would increase the potential for folks to install their own power sources. All of these areas are job creators mind you. They can all put people to work earning decent wages and benefits, especially on the public infrastructure.

But here’s what has to happen (and actually happens) when people seeks laws or regulatory changes to improve these areas in Kentucky.

1. A group of people design a bill with the law or regulation and have it introduced by a legislator (state representative in the State House or State Senator in the State Senate).

2. The bill must then go to the “Committee on Committees” (I’m not joking, it’s really called that) where it is assigned a committee to review it.

3. In the case of the Clean Energy Opportunity Act (HB 167), a bill to help bolster a clean energy/energy efficiency economy, it gets sent to the Tourism Development and Energy Committee where it must be “heard” and voted on by that committee of legislators.

4. If it makes it through, it goes to the “House Floor” where all the state representatives vote on it.

5. If it passes the vote, it goes to a committee in the Senate where the process starts over again.

6. If it makes it through senate committee and passes a senate vote, it goes to the governor who must then sign  it into law or he may veto it.

Quite a few hoops to jump through eh? That’s not the problem though.

Just about every year, the Clean Energy Opportunity Act ends up waiting for a hearing in the Tourism Development and Energy Committee chaired by Leslie Combs whose district is Pike County (big coal country). As the chair, she has the power to say whether or not the bill even gets a hearing. She can just as easily decide not to hear the bill and it will never make it out of committee. What you’ll find is that most bills are “killed in committee” in this way.

This is where the power of coal industry in Frankfort is most disturbing. They have spent years getting legislators in exactly the right places to be on their side through lobbying and campaign funding. They know the power of committees and committee chairs. Committees are the  “law” filtration system. By having committee chairs on their side, the coal industry can successfully control which bills get through, i.e. bills that will help the coal industry, and block those that might negatively impact coal’s bottom line, i.e.  mine safety bills, worker’s rights bills, black lung benefit legislation, energy efficiency, etc.

To make matters worse, pro-coal legislators and committee chairs have tremendous influence over other representatives and senators. For instance, let’s say a representative from Such and Such County wants to get a bill through to help farmers. I approach that same representative asking if they would support a bill to create energy efficiency jobs, cut energy demand and lower energy prices. That representative must think twice about supporting a bill which would decrease coal demand and cause the coal industry trouble. If they do, they will encounter resistance getting their farming bill through the coal controlled committee process. “Oh high Senator Such and Such from Henry County, you have a farm bill eh? Didn’t you just co-sponsor that Energy Efficiency Bill…..” What do you think will happen?

Something else happens on a regular basis before that can even happen many times. A Kentucky Coal Association lobbyist with a “Friends of Coal” tag on their Mercedes will walk in the door of that Such and Such County representative  with an offer. Support a bill that lessens water quality requirements from coal preparation plant discharges and cuts the coal industry’s overhead, they’ll make sure to have “their people”gets the farming bill through their committees and a vote on the floor. Think I’m kidding? That’s how our government works.

I’ve had legislators tell me and other people in our group, “If someone even thinks your bill will hurt the coal industry, you can forget getting any support for it.”Sadly, he was right, and remains right to this day.

Doesn’t seem fair does it? Mine safety bills, black lung benefit legislation,  worker’s rights bills all of it gets held up this way. I can tell you from personal experience that it really doesn’t seem fair when you sit in a legislator’s office who is the chair for an energy committee only to realize they have Friends of Coal tag in their office and a million dollar smile. It’s not fair when you realize that a lot of the legislators with committee chair positions own companies or have family members with companies that make their money in the coal industry.

They have all the money and pull they could ever want thanks to the coal industry associations. To make matters worse, there are hundreds of other companies making millions in extra profits from having cheap electricity produced by coal and coal miners. Think they want coal miners to have better benefits and safety that will cause coal prices and electricity prices to go up?

And that is how democracy truly works….

3 thoughts on “Coal Politics

  1. I’ve never really looked into the politics of coal production from directly from someone in the industry, so this really was an eye opener. You make some really compelling arguments, especially about the lack structure codes that would help homes to not require so much heating. Hopefully something can be done to fix this up.

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  2. Thanks so much, I really enjoy ur line of thought, I’ve seen some horrific examples of coal extracting in our respective states. I remember in the early eighties, when our company began taking environmental impact seriously because of legislation, no one whined, goals were accomplished. In the sixties and seventies, The river in front of my house was dead, ecologically, now it’s full of bugs and fish.

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  3. Thank you for this blog. As the daughter of a military officer, then the wife of a lawyer, living in a major city, I know very little about the things that I have read on this blog. The one thing even we spoiled ones know is that our nation and its prosperity owe a lot to the miners who have been systematically betrayed by those who are most beholden to them. It is my hope that, after her stupid gaffe, Hillary will read this straightforward well written report; the one good thing about this scaberous election is that people are listening to the working poor in a far more conscious way. I will vote for Clinton, but I’d be happier about it if I heard a little speech about what I’ve read here today..

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