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Coal key to Kentucky senate seat

World Coal,

Despite long-term decline in eastern Kentucky’s coal industry, the sector and those who work in it will have a huge say in who wins the senate seat up for grabs in this autumn’s mid-term elections in the US.

Political analysts have pointed out that despite other political differences, both current Republican incumbent, Mitch McConnell as well as his Democrat challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, have gone after pro-coal voters in the state.

McConnell has repeated a mantra over the course of the election race that “coal is a way of life”. Meanwhile, Grimes has described Kentucky coal miners as the state’s “heart and soul”.

Writing in the Guardian, Suzanne Goldbenberg explained why the coal vote in Kentucky is – more than ever before – key to winning victory in the senate. “Political wisdom in Kentucky has long dictated that winning coal country is key to victory. But coal has assumed out-sized importance in this election as a devastating sequence of mine shut downs and job losses in eastern Kentucky have put the region, a once reliably Democratic source of votes, up for grabs.”

Both candidates have taken ire with President Barack Obama’s so called “war on coal”.

McConnell, in particular, launched a scathing attack on Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as he addressed a gathering of 100 or so people in Benton. He said that in trying to offset potentially devastating effects of global warming, the US President had instigated a series of measures that had had a “cataclysmic” effect for Kentucky.

“In our state, the EPA has created a depression in the coal fields,” McConnell said. “In eastern Kentucky, we have got a depression. Every one of those counties has got serious unemployment and out of work coal miners because of the Barack Obama Administration.”

Grimes, meanwhile, has been fervent in her desire to win over coal voters; donning a hard hat and harness as she descended into one of the state’s underground coal mines. She has attacked McConnell for ignoring miners suffering from a condition known as ‘black lung’, because the current senator has called for repealing Obama’s healthcare reform law, which would help those with the disease.

Meanwhile, she has also said Obama’s administration has had an adverse effect on Kentucky. “"Mr President, Kentucky has lost one-third of our coal jobs in just the last three years," Grimes said in an ad released last month. "Now your EPA is targeting Kentucky coal with pie-in-the-sky regulations that are impossible to achieve. It's clear you have no idea how this affects Kentucky."

A line in the sand

With the overall aim of each candidate being to win over the coal vote, some analysts have warned there is a danger that McConnell and Grimes appear too similar to undecided voters.

Grimes has been keen to try and mark out where the similarities between herself and McConnell end. Her campaign manager, Jonathan Hurst, explained that Grimes looked to support low-paid workers and women (including coal miners’ wives), as she seeks a rise in minimum wages and equal pay legislation. McConnell, Hurst said was opposed to these measures, and simply a conservative choosing to stand where the money was with “the lobbyists” rather than “the people of Kentucky.”

Coal in Kentucky

Eastern Kentucky began shedding coal mining jobs on a dramatic scale in 2011, because of competition from other coal mining areas, in western Kentucky, Illinois and Wyoming, and the historically cheap price of natural gas due to fracking.

Decades of decline in the industry spiked in a sudden dip that has hit the coal sector and ripped the floor from beneath it.

Demand for coal from western Kentucky held steady, but coal production in eastern Kentucky fell from 68 million t to 40 million t, according to state government figures. The industry lost about 7000 jobs: half of all the coal mining jobs in the region.

No alternative to coal

McConnell’s chief of staff, Josh Holmes, has said there is no viable alternative to coal. “The people who are ready to throw in the towel on this industry have absolutely no idea what they are talking about,” he said. “There is no miracle solar panel that is going to change the way America produces energy right now. They are putting people out of work in eastern Kentucky just now without any solutions.”

McConnell argues that if he is re-elected, he will seek to cut off funding for the EPA to prevent it doing any further damage to the state’s coal industry. “The Congress has the power of the purse and the best way to stop this executive overreach is to cut the money off,” McConnell said.

Kentucky relies on coal for 93% of its electricity.

Grimes has said that the coal industry should embrace clean coal technology, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), and that funding should be directed towards such technologies.

Hurst said that Grimes “will stand up for investments in clean coal technology, rein in the EPA, and promote legislation that will help prepare jobs for the future and keep foreign markets open for Kentucky coal.”

Written by Sam Dodson

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