Ky. race may alter Clean Power Plan fortunes

By Manuel Quiñones | 05/19/2015 06:16 AM EDT

For many supporters of the Obama administration’s landmark proposal to cut greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, Kentucky is an example of the plan’s viability.

For many supporters of the Obama administration’s landmark proposal to cut greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, Kentucky is an example of the plan’s viability.

Even though the state is a major producer and consumer of coal, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration thinks it can develop a plan to comply with U.S. EPA’s proposed mandates.

But the state’s posture is likely to change after this year’s gubernatorial election. Every major candidate in today’s gubernatorial primary — including the leading Democrat — has either promised or suggested they would not follow through with a plan.


"At my direction, my administration will resist EPA and their draconian regulatory agenda," Republican hopeful Matt Bevin, who ran for U.S. Senate unsuccessfully last year, told the Kentucky Coal Association in a letter last week.

Pro-coal, anti-EPA rhetoric is common in political races in Appalachia. So the Kentucky Coal Association wanted to make sure candidates were on the record specifically about their Clean Power Plan compliance intentions.

The industry group asked the candidates one question: "If elected the Governor of Kentucky, will you submit a GHG State Implementation Plan (or SIP) or will you refuse to do so?"

Attorney General Jack Conway, the leading candidate on the Democratic side, told the KCA: "I believe the recent actions by EPA are an illegal overreach of its authority, and my administration will work to prevent further damage to our state’s economy from overzealous regulation."

For now, the state’s Democratic governor is bucking another of its top politicians, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), who wants states to unify in opposing the Clean Power Plan.

Next year, after Beshear has left office, Kentucky may join the "just say no" contingent. KCA President Bill Bissett says the move would send a message to the country that the state is not divided on the issue.

"It adds another state to the solid column of [those] against" the rule, said Bissett during an interview about the significance of this year’s elections.

EPA plans on finalizing the Clean Power Plan later this year. States would then have to submit their plans or extension requests by 2016. Jurisdictions that don’t comply risk EPA implementing a plan on their behalf.

That’s where the "just say no" strategy comes in. Seeing the proposed rule as an illegal overreach, coal industry opponents and their political allies favor letting EPA carry the rule’s burden rather than states voluntarily submitting to pollution limits.

"Their ability to ramrod this through decreases by day," Bissett said about EPA’s options in the face of states boycotting the plan. He sees litigation or a future president scaling back the rule.

‘Saying this for political reasons’

Beshear and his Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary Len Peters are generally pro-coal. But while they don’t like EPA’s proposal, they are willing to move forward with its implementation (E&E Daily, March 4).

Peters has been optimistic about the state being able to craft a plan, despite limits passed by the General Assembly, where the Senate is under Republican control and the House is in Democratic hands.

Because the Bluegrass State is so coal reliant, EPA would only require its power sector to cut its carbon emissions by 18 percent from 2012 levels by 2030 — among the lowest targets in the nation.

"Will the next governor take that and move with it? I don’t know," Peters said during a recent climate conference. "But we want to give him an opportunity to look at what we have been thinking the last several years."

That’s why Kentucky political analyst Al Cross isn’t sure candidates opposing the Clean Power Plan will stand by their words when it’s time to submit a state implementation plan.

"It’s a doable thing," said Cross about EPA’s proposal. "They’re just saying this for political reasons." He added, "It wouldn’t surprise me to find them picking up where Peters and Beshear have done."

Despite the "just say no" campaign by rule opponents, 41 states are considering their options and in talks with neighboring states about compliance plans (ClimateWire, May 18).

Michael Dowd, director of the air division at Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, lamented that West Virginia and Kentucky would likely not be part of such discussions. Dowd’s state must cut its emissions by 38 percent, according to EPA’s draft rule.

"We think that they have a competitive advantage," Dowd said during a recent conference. A state in the same region with greater emissions reduction responsibilities will bear more cost and pass it through to its industries, he noted.

Bissett knows there’s always a risk politicians will say one thing and do another when push comes to shove. But he said, "I feel confident" about them sticking to their positions.

Conway well-positioned

A SurveyUSA poll released last week showed Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, former Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner and Bevin essentially tied for the GOP nomination.

Conway enjoys a comfortable lead over primary rival Geoff Young, who is running as a progressive, pro-environmental regulations Democrat.

The attorney general, who ran for Senate in 2010 and lost to Republican Rand Paul, is also well-positioned for the general election, polls show (Greenwire, May 14).

But after today’s primary, the Republican nominee will likely escalate his attacks against Conway’s Democratic connections. President Obama remains unpopular in the state, and coal field residents blame him for the sharp downturn in mine employment.

Conway will try to inoculate himself by pointing to litigation by him and other states against the Clean Power Plan. "Conway has his line down," Cross said. "This suit is central to his candidacy. He’s got that comeback, and it relies on a coal issue."

But he may be more vulnerable to political attacks on stances on two other lawsuits. Conway decided against defending the state’s gay marriage ban in court or suing to overturn the Affordable Care Act.

"In the current environment, you’re just expected to be pro-coal," said Cross. But he doesn’t see the Clean Power Plan debate as a make-or-break issue in this fall’s gubernatorial election. "This is not something most people are paying attention to."

Reporter Jean Chemnick contributed.