Elaine Chao, Wife Of Mitch McConnell, Committed To Ending America’s ‘Reliance On Dirty Coal’

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"Elaine Chao, Wife Of Mitch McConnell, Committed To Ending America’s ‘Reliance On Dirty Coal’"

Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell with his wife, Elaine Chao.

Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell with his wife, Elaine Chao.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

Former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao is part of the important effort to end dirty mining practices and shut down dirty coal plants in Kentucky and nationwide.

What’s awkward about this is that her husband, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), is locked in a tight Senate race with challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes — whom he has tried to link to the so-called ‘war on coal.’

But it turns out it is McConnell’s wife, featured in a new major six-figure TV ad for her husband, who is on the board of not one but two foundations fighting dirty coal. Specifically, Chao is on the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies, which has been providing a “$50 million grant and additional resources” as part of its ongoing partnership with the Sierra Club’s terrific Beyond Coal campaign.

Well, it’s terrific if, like most people, you want to cut carbon pollution and mercury pollution and generally replace dirty coal with clean energy to avoid “13,000 deaths and $100 billion in health care costs,” without even counting the climate benefits.

The foundation explains that “with the Beyond Coal campaign, we’re helping to end our nation’s reliance on dirty coal, plant-by-plant, community-by-community, and state-by-state.” And that effort includes Kentucky, as this map from Sierra Club shows:

The Beyond Coal Campaign

The Beyond Coal goal campaign, one of whose goals is to “keep coal in the ground in places like Appalachia,” is targeting 15 plants in McConnell’s home state.

A spokesman for McConnell brushed aside the Chao-Bloomberg issue in comments to Yahoo News, asserting that “the decisions to make those grants by the Bloomberg philanthropies were made before she joined the board and she played no role in the decision to grant them.”

There are three problems with that argument. First, yes, it’s true that Chao joined in April 2012, and, Bloomberg announced the initiative in July 2011 as we reported at the time. But as the foundation made clear in its 2013-2014 annual report, released in February, that it’s an ongoing partnership. “Our efforts to reduce U.S. coal pollution through a partnership with the Sierra Club are bearing real fruit,” the report said. “Last year, we passed the halfway mark toward our goal of retiring one-third of the country’s coal fleet, our dirtiest energy source.”

Second, people generally don’t join the boards of foundations whose central mission they oppose — they resign from them. As of today, the Bloomberg website couldn’t be clearer that the foundation is “helping to end our nation’s reliance on dirty coal.” And as Kentucky media pointed out, “Chao was on the charity’s board when at least half of the grants were made to the Sierra Club.”

Third, Chao is also on the board of Wells Fargo. Last year, Wells Fargo explained its deepening efforts to reduce funding for mountain top removal mining (MTR) — a particularly dirty form of coal extraction — in its 2013 “Environmental and Social Risk Management Report”:

As a result of our deliberate approach and the broader movement of the industry toward other mining methods, our involvement with the practice of MTR is limited and declining. Wells Fargo will not extend credit to individual MTR mining projects or to a coal producer that receives a majority of its production from MTR mining. Wells Fargo will not extend credit to individual MTR mining projects or to a coal producer that receives a majority of its production from MTR mining.

Good for Wells Fargo. And good for Chao, too. Very good, in fact — in 2011, 2012, and 2013, she made a stunning $684,000 in compensation and stock awards.

While Chao certainly has her own very successful career independent from her husband, including a stint as Labor Secretary in the George W. Bush administration, McConnell’s campaign is now using her on air as a direct weapon against Grimes. So Chao’s well-paid efforts to help oversee organizations that are fighting dirty coal would seem like fair game.

Finally, as CP has often noted, the “war on coal” is a misnomer. Coal is at near record levels of production in this country. There has been a war on “coal workers,” as Paul Krugman has put it, but it “took place a generation ago, waged not by liberal environmentalists but by the coal industry itself. And coal workers lost.”

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