Give her a break. It’s not easy to run for office in coal country

As a supporter of environmental protection, I think that, in the macro sense, we can place strict environmental regulations on our energy companies and also create new jobs. We can move away from coal with its high concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and sulfur and accelerate our transition towards wind, solar, and other alternative forms of clean energy.

But don’t try telling that to the coal miners in eastern Kentucky. The sons and daughters of settlers from Scotland and Ireland have always struggled to make a living in the mining industry. They chose to live in the hollars of Appalachia, to be shut off from anyone but their closest neighbors, and to scratch out a living on very modest farms.

But after the Civil War, the region was drastically transformed because it was rich in coal. That didn’t matter before the industrial revolution, but now the settlers were sitting on “black gold.” In a fairytale story, the business barons would have come into the region, hired the residents, paid them good wages, ensured safe working conditions, and protected the environment for future generations.

Only the first part of the story is true–hiring the residents. But the industrialists did so in the most exploitative way. They paid a pittance, spent little on mine safety, because the workers were expendable resources, and left environmental issues to be future generations’ problems.

Here we are, 150 years later, and the coal industry in Appalachia has gone through a series of booms and busts. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, coal was essentially the only fuel available. It also played a key role in the manufacturing of steel. But it was a source of work for millions.

Demand for coal is now down, and only two percent of the laborers in Appalachia work directly in the coal industry. But many more depend on the industry, and there’s always hope that another boom is just around the corner. Whether it’s hope or despair, it’s bad news for any politician who wants to campaign on environmental protection. This is particularly true of Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic Senate nominee in Kentucky.

Grimes is making a full effort to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. It would help her a lot to have the backing of the White House. But she is clearly at odds with the White House over new environmental regulations rules. According to CNN,

Grimes has made it a point to draw a bold line between herself and the White House – most recently on the Obama administration’s new Environmental Protection Agency rule that would drastically reduce carbon emission from power plants.

“Mr. President, Kentucky has lost one-third of our coal jobs in just the last three years,” Grimes said in the ad. “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.”

Grimes’ campaign said the spot comes as part of a six-figure campaign highlighting their candidate’s stance on coal.

The Kentucky Democrat joins mostly Republicans, but a few other Democrats, from coal and oil states who protest the proposed EPA rules would harm their states’ economies and raise energy prices.

While Alison Grimes’ tone towards President Obama sounds a bit harsh, it is certainly understandable that she would stand by the coal interests in her state. Coal may have a future in our energy mix, and she cannot displace Mitch McConnell by denying that. Those of us who want to see energy trending more towards renewable fuels should not waste our personal energy trying to get Grimes to oppose coal. Fortunately, coal is king in only a few states, and with the wise leadership of President Obama and others, the country should spare her and others from her region from having to bear the burden of the necessary energy shift. Democrats, like Republicans, tend to favor the special interests of their states, and they should not withdraw support from her over the issue of coal.