Environmentalists who went to the polls in Kentucky’s gubernatorial race last week likely found themselves in a quandary. Both candidates strongly supported coal, expressed doubts about the science behind global warming, and criticized President Obama’s climate change policies. One of them was even suing the Environmental Protection Agency — and that was the Democratic candidate.
In the end, Republican Matt Bevin beat Democrat Jack Conway in a surprise landslide victory. From the outset of his campaign, Bevin — a former businessman who’s never before held office — aimed to appease far-right voters with firm stances on key issues, including climate change. When asked about global warming at a primary debate in April, he said there was a lot of “fluff and theory that has been perpetrated as science to create the perception that somehow this global warming has been entirely man-made.” He went on to suggest that since the earth was once covered in ice, which has since melted, the causes of global warming can’t be attributed to human activities.
Ultimately, neither candidate would have been a completely satisfying choice for voters hoping to see their state embrace comprehensive climate change policies, but Matt Bevin’s replacement of Democratic Governor Steve Beshear will likely roll back the important steps the state has made toward acknowledging, and addressing, climate change.
The coal economy
To understand Kentucky’s gubernatorial results, you first have to understand the state’s history of coal. For most of the 20th century, coal served as the foundation for the economy in Kentucky, creating jobs, providing a low-cost energy source, and bringing in revenues through the coal severance tax. But Kentucky’s — and the rest of Appalachia’s — relationship with the coal industry is somewhat complicated — the coal industry has been accused of blocking benefits to black lung sufferers, and its practices have destroyed large swaths of land and buried rivers and streams. Nevertheless, over the last century, expanded mining operations were seen by many as a hopeful sign of future prosperity, and in spite of the potential drawbacks — both environmentally and economically — communities embraced coal mining.
Following the boom in coal production in the late 1980s, the coal industry began to sharply decline, partly due to the rise of cheaper, alternative energy sources like natural gas, which created a lower demand for coal. Between 1990 and 2010, coal production in Eastern Kentucky fell precipitously from about 120 million tons to about 70 million tons. Over the next three years, production would be cut in half to nearly 35 million tons a year. Employment in coal mines similarly dropped — in 1990, there were approximately 26,000 mining jobs in Eastern Kentucky, but by mid-2015, the number had fallen to under 6,000. And the decline shows no sign of stopping — in the second quarter of 2015, the industry cut an estimated 10.6 percent of its workforce in Eastern Kentucky.
A variety of factors have contributed to coal production and employment in Kentucky, including the rise of natural gas, cheaper coal out west, and increased mechanization of the industry. Many Kentuckians, however, blame federal regulations — including, most recently, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan — for coal’s decline.
Bevin has latched on to this rhetoric, and has pledged his resistance to Obama’s efforts on climate change. In one of his ads, Bevin referenced his plan to “protect us from Obama’s war on Kentucky.” In another campaign video, Bevin pledged his support to Kentucky’s coal industry.
“I have made very clear that I understand, as governor, that we are the last line of defense in America against an out-of-control EPA,” he said. “We need a governor that will fight for coal — not just give lip service when running for office.”
On his campaign site, Bevin promised that, if elected governor, his “administration will aggressively fight against the EPA’s war on the energy sector in Kentucky, particularly the relentless attacks on the coal industry.” He also said he would “refuse to enforce federal regulations that are in opposition to our own state interests” — a reference to the administration’s climate rule.
Bevin has used states’ rights as justification for his anti-EPA views.
“One of the most powerful tools that any governor has, frankly, regardless of their ideology, is the 10th Amendment,” Bevin told Glen Beck last week. “We will tell the EPA, and other un-elected officials who have no legal authority over us as a state, to pound sand.”
Bevin’s office did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment by press time.
Bevin’s rhetoric makes it likely that he’ll follow in the footsteps of Kentucky Senator and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has repeatedly labeled President Obama’s climate change agenda as a “war on coal.” Although McConnell and Bevin ran against each other in 2014 the for a U.S. Senate seat, which spawned heated attacks against one another, the two made amends when Bevin entered the Kentucky gubernatorial race. McConnell attended numerous rallies in support of Bevin, and is credited with helping persuade the Republican Governor’s Association to continue backing Bevin after the organization pulled its ads in support of him, citing the candidate’s poor fundraising polling results.
Kentucky’s outgoing governor Steve Beshear was no environmentalist — he opposed new EPA limits on smog, sued the EPA in 2010, and in 2011 told the EPA to “get off our backs.” But he was less hostile towards environmental regulations towards the end of his tenure as governor. While coal has long been an important part of the state’s economy, Beshear understood that global warming was becoming an increasingly pressing issue.
“For our voice to be taken seriously in this dialogue,” he said at a 2013 Governor’s Conference on Energy and the Environment, “we have to acknowledge our commitment to address greenhouse gas emissions while stressing the need for a rational, flexible regulatory approach.”
In his two terms as governor, Beshear worked to meet the president and EPA halfway. He created a new position under the Energy and Environment Cabinet — the Assistant Secretary for Climate Change Policy — who was in charge of overseeing regulation on emissions. He expressed his support of Obama’s 2016 budget, which included expansion of EPA regulations, but also “targeted investments in economic development for areas such as Appalachia, where declines in coal production over several decades have created economic challenges for communities and families.”
Beshear also showed his willingness to reach across the aisle on the issue, joining Republican Congressman Hal Rogers in launching a summit called SOAR, which stands for Shaping Our Appalachian Region. The summit convened a committee of 35 public and private sector leaders to discuss ways to revive Eastern Kentucky. The committee, which included supporters of the coal industry, expressed an interest in diversifying Eastern Kentucky’s economy through small business development, technology innovation, expanding tourism, and improving education.
Although Jack Conway’s campaign repeatedly highlighted the fact that he was “the only Democratic Attorney General in the country who [was] standing up” to the EPA, many Democratic voters had hopes that he would offer a continuation of Beshear’s middle-of-the-road approach on climate change policy. With the election of Bevin, however, these hopes will likely be dashed.