Though Not Quietly, Kentucky Moves to Cut Reliance on Coal

Courtesy of The New York Times. By TRIP GABRIEL

BURGIN, Ky. — The E. W. Brown power plant rides like an ocean liner on a rolling ridge in Kentucky, its smokestacks and plumes visible across fields of corn and cattle for miles around.

The coal-fired plant has lighted homes since Dwight D. Eisenhower was in office. But under the Obama administration’s plan to fight global warming, its days could be ticking down. Two of its three coal-fired generating units are among the oldest and least efficient in the state, and concerns that the plant could close are making residents of this small town deeply anxious.

“It would completely shut Burgin down,” said Ann Phillips, who with her husband, Scott, runs the Burgin Depot, a small grocery (“American Owned & Operated. In God We Trust. Penns Country Ham $7.99”), which does 40 percent of its business with employees of the plant.

Here in coal country, the reaction from politicians and the coal industry to President Obama’s climate plan has been swift and close to apocalyptic.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican minority leader, called the proposed rule “a dagger in the heart of the American middle class.” His Democratic opponent in a fierce Senate race this year, Alison Lundergan Grimes, matched his outrage, accusing the president of “targeting Kentucky coal with pie-in-the-sky regulations that are impossible to achieve.”

But beyond the campaign rhetoric, even here in Kentucky, which ranks No. 1 in the nation in carbon emissions per unit of electricity produced from all sources, others more quietly are saying that doom may not be at hand. In drafting its regulation, the Environmental Protection Agency listened to energy-rich states like Kentucky and offered wide flexibility to meet its requirement, the most aggressive federal effort yet to address climate change. Despite cries of a “war on coal” that echo through mining country in eastern Kentucky, the region is already taking hardheaded steps toward a post-coal economy.

John Lyons, Kentucky’s assistant secretary for climate policy, is cautiously optimistic that the carbon limits will not raise electric prices sharply enough to drive out manufacturers, who set up in the state for rates that are among the lowest in the country.

“I think our electric prices are going to go up, regardless of what’s done with this rule,” he said.

Representative John Yarmuth, a Democrat from Louisville, said Kentucky had already been moving toward a future less reliant on coal because of competition from cheaper, cleaner natural gas.

“If you add all the numbers up, we can probably comply with the terms of the rule with very little impact, if any, because everybody’s heading in that direction to begin with,” he said. “Anybody who’s actually looked at the subject understands coal is going to play a dramatically reduced role in our nation’s energy portfolio.”

In drafting its regulation, the E.P.A. endorsed a 23-page “white paper” that Kentucky’s energy department sent last year asking that states be given wide flexibility in reducing carbon. Rather than regulate emissions from every smokestack, the E.P.A. is giving states an overall target to meet — in Kentucky’s case, a reduction of 18 percent of carbon pollution by 2030. The target is lower than for many states, taking into account Kentucky’s heavy coal habit, which accounts for 93 percent of its electricity.

The state has great flexibility in devising a plan to reach the goal. It can include switching plants from coal to natural gas, developing renewable energy like solar, and encouraging the use of efficient home appliances and insulation to reduce demand. And none of it will happen immediately: Any shutdowns are years away, as the E.P.A.’s proposal faces a political and legal onslaught.

But it is clear that if the plan goes into effect, there will be short-term disruptions, including to local economies tied to individual coal plants that might close, and in mining regions like eastern Kentucky, where the number of coal jobs is already at a historic low. The E.P.A. estimated that coal production in central Appalachia would fall by up to 37 percent as a result of its proposal.

“It’s going to be devastating if the power plant goes down,” said Dionna Sizemore of Burgin, a mother of two, ages 11 and 16, who moved from Harlan County, the heart of Appalachian coal country, to escape dead-end prospects there. “We know the impact it’s having on friends and family back home: people having to move off.”

Mr. Lyons said it was impossible to say this early which of the state’s 56 coal-fired generating units, if any, might close. Many have already installed costly upgrades to comply with earlier pollution rules.

But Laura Sheehan, a spokeswoman for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a trade group, said about 15 of the state’s oldest and smallest units were at risk of being shut down because of the new carbon rule. Synapse Energy Economics, a research company based in Boston, identified the two older units at the E. W. Brown plant as “uneconomic” based on the estimated cost of complying with projected caps on carbon.

A spokeswoman for the plant’s owner, Kentucky Utilities Company, said it had no plans to retire the units, which opened in 1957 and 1963 and have a combined capacity of about 270 megawatts. Along with a third, newer coal-burning unit, the plant consumes 1.5 million tons of coal annually, which arrives on railroad cars that thunder through Burgin.

Nationwide, the E.P.A. projects that as much as 19 percent of electricity from the country’s 600 coal-fired plants will be uneconomical under the carbon regulation by 2020.

Such estimates are what send critics to the barricades, warning of steep increases in electric rates and steep job losses. With electricity in Kentucky priced around 7 cents per kilowatt-hour (compared with 16 cents in New York), the state has attracted energy-intensive industries like aluminum and steel.

There are no studies yet of the impact of the E.P.A.’s proposal on the state’s economy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobby, projected 21,400 job losses annually in a four-state region that includes Kentucky. But the study was based on deeper carbon reductions than the E.P.A. proposed.

The agency says that nationwide, electric bills will rise in the short run by 3.2 percent, but will decline by 8 percent by 2030, as a result of increased energy efficiency. It also says reducing carbon pollution from power plants, the nation’s leading source of emissions linked to global warming, will save money and create jobs.

Jobs in coal mining are another story. Bill Bissett, the president of the Kentucky Coal Association, called the E.P.A. proposal “very bad news for states like Kentucky who mine and use coal to create electricity.”

On Tuesday, Mr. McConnell introduced the Coal Country Protection Act, which would require the administration to prove that no jobs would be lost and that electric rates would not rise before the E.P.A. rule could take effect. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, blocked it.

In truth, coal jobs have been declining in central Appalachia since the 1980s for a variety of reasons. They include competition from natural gas and cheaper coal from Wyoming that is easier to dig out of the ground, as well as earlier environmental regulations under Mr. Obama.

While Mr. McConnell and Ms. Grimes bludgeon each other in their Senate race over who will be coal’s best friend, other politicians, notably Gov. Steven L. Beshear, a Democrat, and Representative Harold Rogers, a Republican from eastern Kentucky, have worked less noisily to move the region’s economy beyond coal.

Last year, they held a bipartisan conference in Pikeville, Ky., on developing a post-coal economy. Mr. Rogers favors running high-capacity, high-speed Internet cable into rural areas, which has already created thousands of jobs in digital record keeping, like those at a State Department visa processing center in Williamsburg, Ky., that uses facial-recognition technology. “We could make some great progress,” Mr. Rogers said.

He did not minimize the impact of the carbon emissions rule, which he called devastating. But he pointed out that coal jobs had been in decline for decades.

“We have no choice but to find additional ways to make a living,” he said.

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