A coal tipple lies abandoned near an closed mine site outside of Whitesburg, Ky., in June. (Joby Warrick/The Washington Post)

Even after years of talk about a “war on coal,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell startled some of his constituents in March when he urged open rebellion against a White House proposal for cutting pollution from coal-fired power plants.

The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan is “extremely burdensome and costly,” the Kentucky Republican said in letters advising all 50 states to boycott the rule when it goes into effect this summer.

The call for direct defiance was unusual even for McConnell, who has made a career of battling federal restrictions on coal. Yet more striking is what has happened since: Kentucky’s government and electric utilities have quietly positioned themselves to comply with the rule — something state officials expect to do with relatively little effort.

In this coal-industry bastion, five of the state’s older coal-
burning power plants were already scheduled to close or switch to natural gas in the next two years, either because of aging equipment or to save money, state officials say. As a result, Kentucky’s greenhouse-gas emissions are set to plummet 16 percent below where they were in 2012 — within easy reach of the 18 percent reduction goal proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency in a draft of the agency’s controversial carbon-cutting plan.

“We can meet it,” Kentucky Energy and Environment Secretary Leonard Peters, speaking at a climate conference, said of the EPA’s mandate.

A homeowner displays a "war on coal" sign in a mountain village near Whitesburg, Ky. (Joby Warrick/The Washington Post)

The story is the same across much of the country as the EPA prepares to roll out what is arguably the biggest and most controversial environmental regulation of the Obama presidency. Under the Clean Power Plan, states will have to find ways to achieve dramatic cuts in carbon pollution over the next 15 years, with reduction quotas topping 50 percent over 2012 levels for some states. But despite dire warnings and harsh political rhetoric, many states are already on track to meet their targets, even before the EPA formally announces them, interviews and independent studies show.

Iowa is expected to meet half of its carbon-reduction goal by next year, just with the wind-power projects already planned or in construction. Nevada is on track to meet 100 percent of its goal without additional effort, thanks to several huge ­solar-energy farms the state’s electricity utilities were already planning to build. From the Great Lakes to the Southwest, electric utilities were projecting huge drops in greenhouse-gas emissions as they switch from burning coal to natural gas — not because of politics or climate change, but because gas is now cheaper.

“It’s frankly the norm,” said Malcolm Woolf, a former Maryland state energy official and now senior vice president for Advanced Energy Economy, an industry association that includes electricity providers and major manufacturers. While some power companies have logistical concerns about meeting the EPA’s targets, Woolf said, “we’ve yet to find a state that is going to have a real technical challenge meeting this.”

EPA promises ‘flexibility’

States’ interest in the EPA’s Clean Power Plan has soared in recent weeks as the agency prepares to reveal the final contours of a proposal that was first announced more than a year ago. Administration officials have been meeting privately for weeks to craft a final version that will withstand legal and legislative challenges. One senior administration official said the revised plan will include provisions that will make it easier for most states to comply.

“The administration has made it clear that there will be changes that will increase flexibility to allow states to meet the standards,” said the official, who insisted on anonymity in discussing ongoing deliberations.

The essentials of the regulation are expected to remain unchanged: In a major step to reduce the pollutants linked to climate change, the Obama administration will require states to reduce carbon pollution by a certain percentage — the exact rate varies depending on each state’s mix of power sources and current levels of fossil-fuel emissions — by 2030.

A stream carrying runoff from an abandoned Eastern Kentucky coal mine runs bright orange from chemical contaminants in mine waste. (Joby Warrick/The Washington Post)

The plan’s highly touted “flexibility” is a key selling point. Under the EPA’s proposal, each state has the option of devising its own strategy for cutting carbon, based on local circumstances and economic considerations. One state may opt to phase out older coal-burning power plants, while another might seek to expand the use of solar and wind energy. Or a state might add new energy-
efficiency programs to cut electricity consumption.

If a state makes no attempt to come up with its own plan — as McConnell has advised — the EPA can impose its own, made-in-Washington plan.

Critics of the EPA plan, including McConnell, say the flexibility provisions are a mirage. Soon, opponents say, states will find themselves bound to mandatory pollution cuts that will make electricity costs soar, hurting consumers and costing jobs — especially coal-industry jobs.

“EPA, like the [Greeks], is asking governors to willingly accept a Trojan horse, the Clean Power Plan,” said Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association. “Once that plan is brought into a state, EPA will be in command of that state’s energy economy.”

Opponents are organizing to defeat the proposal across multiple fronts. In addition to McConnell’s efforts to organize a boycott, a number of states have joined a lawsuit challenging the legality of the proposed rule. Members of Congress from both political parties have supported measures to block or delay the measure’s implementation.

“We are witnessing the Obama administration wage an all-out assault on our energy abundance, deploying the EPA to do whatever it takes to shut down fossil-fuel-fired power plants across the country,” said Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), sponsor of a bill that would delay the proposal’s implementation and allow states to opt out without penalty.

Five governors have taken up McConnell’s call to “just say no” to the EPA’s proposal. Five are Republicans — including presidential contenders Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

Yet, even in states that have joined lawsuits against the measure, state regulators and utility companies are hedging their bets, drawing up plans for carbon-
cutting to avoid having to accept a plan crafted by the EPA.

“Our utilities don’t want a federal plan; they want a state plan they can control,” said John ­Lyons, Kentucky’s assistant secretary for climate policy under outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear (D). “We have an obligation to the next administration to prepare.”

Changes in coal country

The shift from coal to cleaner energy is particularly striking in McConnell’s home state, where the majority leader’s call for defiance has been met with a shrug.

The coal industry still wields enormous political power, defended by a mostly Republican congressional delegation that has vowed to save coal-mining jobs by blocking burdensome regulation. McConnell, shortly before taking the Senate majority leader’s post early this year, declared that his No. 1 priority was to “do whatever I can to get the EPA reined in.” In eastern coal towns, a common roadside sign still urges voters to “Fire Obama” and “Stop the war on coal.”

Yet, scattered throughout the state are other signs that point to decreasing dependence on coal, moving the state closer to meeting its emissions targets.

Early this month, the coal furnaces at Louisville Gas & Electric Co.’s Cane Run power plant — a towering structure on the banks of the Ohio River — shut down for good, replaced by a new unit that burns cheaper natural gas. The switch occurred in the month when natural gas officially surpassed coal nationwide as the No. 1 fuel for electricity production, government figures show.

In Hazard, a town of 4,500 people some 40 miles from the Virginia border, gargantuan machines called draglines still tear away at four different mountains within a few miles of downtown. In a practice known as mountaintop mining, companies shear off entire peaks to expose narrow coal seams buried beneath. But these days, even mountaintop mining is in steep decline. Since 2008, the number of mine permits has dropped 62 percent, reflecting an overall drop in domestic demand for coal, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

Appalachia’s coal fields are also losing to competition from other parts of the country. An ever greater share of U.S. coal production now comes from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, where the coal seams lie just below the surface and can be recovered without expensive tunneling or mountaintop removal. The number of coal-related jobs in Kentucky has fallen from 48,000 in 1980 to 18,000 in 2013, with an even steeper drop forecast for the coming decades. A 2009 study by the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that Appalachian coal production was on the cusp of a “period of irreversible decline.”

With the likelihood of a coal resurgence increasingly in doubt, some Kentuckians are questioning whether the energy expended in fighting coal regulations would be better applied to bringing new kinds of industries to the state’s coal counties, where measures of poverty, health care and life expectancy are among the most dismal in the country.

“They blame Obama for everything,” said Stanley Sturgill, 70, a retired miner from Lynch, a village near Kentucky’s eastern border with Virginia. “But he’s only been in office for six years, while these other politicians have been around for 30 years or more, and their pockets are full of coal money. They’ve been riding the coal train and not bringing anything back.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s position on the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan. While Tomblin has criticized the measure, his administration has not yet taken a position on whether the state should develop a plan for complying with the regulation after it becomes law.