Why Senate control could hinge on Democratic opposition to the ‘war on coal’

"I don't agree with the president's war on coal," Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes said pointedly during her victory speech Tuesday night. It's a war, she said, that is "wrong for Kentucky." It's also a war that is expected to finally kick into high gear this summer — just as Grimes and West Virginia Senate candidate Natalie Tennant (D) are trying to secure votes in extremely coal-friendly states.


Alison Lundergan Grimes greets supporters in her newly opened campaign headquarters. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Grimes's comments came toward the end of an extended riff on her support for the coal industry, which she clearly hoped would serve two purposes: 1) distance herself from an unpopular President Obama and 2) align her with an industry that remains a major player in the state's economy and its politics.

"It's on Mitch McConnell's watch, not mine, that we've lost thousands of coal jobs," she said to her supporters. "It's on Mitch McConnell's watch, not mine, that we've gone without the necessary funding to implement clean coal technology. It's on Mitch McConnell's watch, not mine, that overburdensome EPA regulations have been imposed on the commonwealth of Kentucky."

Her point about losing jobs on Sen. Mitch McConnell's watch is correct, sort of. McConnell took office in January 1985. Here's what's happened to American coal jobs since.

But that drop off isn't really McConnell's fault, any more than it is President Obama's.

In 2013, Kentucky lost 2,300 coal jobs, according to the state, after losing about 2,500 the year before. As Louisville's WFPL reported in February, that is very much due in part to new pollution controls — controls on sulfur emissions that are opening up markets for coal in other states. (See the Wall Street Journal's report from last year.)

What Grimes (and most Republicans, including McConnell) mean when they refer to a "war on coal" is the same thing that Mitt Romney meant in 2012: Obama just doesn't like the stuff. When he was running for president in 2008, Obama famously told the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle that he planned to fight climate change by making carbon dioxide pollution more expensive. "If someone wants to build a new coal-fired power plant they can," Obama said, "but it will bankrupt them because they will be charged a huge sum for all the greenhouse gas that’s being emitted."

That didn't happen. In 2010, a policy to introduce a cost to carbon emissions (called cap-and-trade) died in the Senate. Obama moved the issue to the back-burner, only taking it up again in earnest last year. Since the largest contributor to American carbon pollution is electricity production, the administration introduced a plan to limit carbon dioxide emissions from future coal-burning plants.

The real fight will start this summer. The EPA has been working on a recommendation to regulate existing coal plants, meaning that they would possibly need to make expensive upgrades or transition to cleaner-burning fuel sources in order to stay open. New York magazine's Jonathan Chait predicts that these regulations — a major offensive in an Obama-led war on coal — will end up being a bigger political fight than even the fight over Obamacare.

Grimes is putting on the uniform of Obama's opponents, as is Tennant in West Virginia. (Tennant's campaign site pledges that she'll "stand up to any misguided efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency that will destroy our coal industry.") That's because in Kentucky and West Virginia, the war on coal is as much cultural as it is practical.

In 2012, Kentucky and West Virginia had the largest number of coal company employees in the United States (with about 16,000 and 23,000 respectively), according to the National Mining Association.

Kentucky and West Virginia also had the most actual miners (11,000 and 17,000), two years ago, an occupation that has approached a status in the American imagination nearing that of the cowboy. It's hard, dangerous, blue-collar work of the sort that Americans love. (The guy-friendly network Spike had a show about them.) But that image is less accurate than it used to be. Much of the long-term drop in coal jobs is due to increased mechanization, as the National Journal reported last year.

The "war on coal" rhetoric on the campaign trail isn't about coal and the evolution of the coal industry and climate change. It's about the sort of visual that flickered in the background of Mitch McConnell's Election Day splash page on his website: a defense of a Kentucky that has a tradition of grit and hard work. Obama's upcoming, wonky announcement about how coal plants need to better manage emissions of a global warming gas is going up against that vision of what made and makes Kentucky great.

Wonky vs aspirational? Take a guess which message will win out this fall.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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