Long before he entered the Senate or condemned efforts to combat climate change, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) once objected to a coal processing plant.
In 1984, McConnell was Jefferson County Judge-Executive, and that year he learned of plans by Convenient Energy and a subsidiary of American Commercial Lines to build the plant on the Louisville waterfront. The facility would take in coal shipments from barges, then dry it and crush it to sell to companies that were mainly using oil or natural gas.
According to a Tuesday story in the Hazard Herald, McConnell urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to assess the merits of the plan, and raised concerns ranging from noise pollution to increased truck traffic in residential areas and what better uses the riverfront property could be put. “Jefferson County has and will continue to support and advocate economic development within its borders. Yet this proposal raises several issues that deserve and require careful consideration,” McConnell wrote in his request to the Corps.
“Although I advocate economic and job expansion, it must not occur to the detriment of our environment,” McConnell wrote to another constituent who supported his concerns. “[The processing plant’s] approval would undermine any potential for the aesthetic future of the Upper Ohio Riverfront,” he wrote in another letter.
Responding to the Hazard Herald, Allison Moore, the press secretary for McConnell’s campaign, objected that, “The inference that a lifetime coal supporter didn’t support this development because of coal is beyond absurd, especially since Senator McConnell even offered to help secure federal grants to help them build the facility at a different location.” Larry Cox, who was Jefferson County’s secretary for environmental policy in 1984, also told the Harzard Herald that McConnell’s concerns at the time were not purely centered around coal.
“I didn’t remember it being particularly against coal per se, but against the expansion of industrial development at that site,” Cox said.
But this is not the issue. No one opposes coal per se. The issue is the fossil fuel’s carbon dioxide emissions.
What McConnell did in this instance was look at a proposal to expand coal production, he observed that it came with myriad costs as well as benefits, and then he suggested the latter may outweigh the former. It was, ultimately, a judgment call.
Which is exactly what the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency made when they created the regulations to cut carbon emissions from the nation’s power plants — the rule McConnel called “a dagger in the heart of the middle class,” and which he has made numerous efforts to undermine.
Coal is one of the most carbon-intensive forms of energy we use, and 97 percent of climate scientists agree that humanity’s carbon emissions are a big driver of climate change. According to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC), there is a 95 percent certainty that most of the global warming since the 1950s was manmade. (That’s the same certainty scientists assign to the ability of cigarettes to kill you.) The IPCC also says the world is well on its way to emitting enough carbon to blow past 2°C of global warming, after which scientists are pretty sure climate change will become truly catastrophic.
Up against that, it’s hard to argue for coal use. Renewables are already becoming competitive with coal, it comes with myriad other health consequences for the people who work in the industry and live near the power plants, and there are other policies the government can use to boost alternative jobs in the coal states.
As for the coal processing plant back in 1984, it was ultimately approved to be built in a different spot near Louisville than originally planned.