In his first one-on-one interview since his re-election on Tuesday, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell told the Lexington Herald-Leader that his top priority is “to try to do whatever I can to get the EPA reined in.”

While this may chill environmentalists and sit ill with Democrats, the Senator’s priority reflects that of the state he represents, and it is important to understand why.


Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

In June, President Obama and the EPA announced a new energy proposal: Reducing the country’s carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Such a sweeping environmental move was hailed by conservationists, climate scientists and green activists the world over. At the same time, it was bashed by Republicans, booed by businesses and boycotted by coal miners.

Critics of the new EPA regulation say that it will be bad for American business, and if approved, the regulation would indeed force a potentially painful transition for the domestic energy industry. Coal is the cheapest but also the dirtiest fuel on the planet, and the EPA’s carbon reduction plan would affect some 600 coal-fired power plants (responsible for one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions) and probably require a number of them to shut down.

Part of the EPA plan would provide funds for coal-dependent states to transition into alternative energy sources or allow states to establish their own cap-and-trade markets, but it could be a jarring transformation no matter how it shakes out.

That brings the conversation back to Kentucky and its newly-reelected Senator.

“I’m absolutely convinced from the people I talk to around the country, not just here but around the country, that coal has a future,” McConnell told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “The question is whether or not coal is going to have a future here. It’s got a future in Europe. It’s got a future in China, India, Australia. But not here?”

True, coal is big business in China – but it’s so big that coal-induced smog has led to 670,000 deaths in the country and increased the lung cancer rate in Beijing by over 50 percent.

But the fact remains, McConnell’s state is a coal state – America’s third-largest producer after Wyoming and West Virginia. According to Kentucky’s Energy Development Department, the industry employed over 12,000 men and women and produced 80.5 million short tons of coal in 2013. That’s over eight percent of the nation’s coal supply.

Coal is also the main source of fuel for Kentuckians, generating about 93 percent of the state’s net electricity in 2013.

Yet Kentucky is suffering from this massive coal-dependence. Since 2011, reports the Wall Street Journal, the industry “has seen an unrelenting decline that left eastern Kentucky with just 8,000 mining jobs in the second quarter of [2013].”

In Harlan County, mining jobs fell by almost 50 percent between 2011 and June 2013, pushing the county’s unemployment rate to 16.3 percent in August.

In a recent article, Planet Expert and native Kentuckian Dr. Tom Kimmerer wrote,

“Throughout Kentucky, coal is on its way out with remarkable speed. Coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky have been declining for decades, as they have nationwide. There are now more solar energy jobs than coal mining jobs in the U.S. Many utilities are retiring coal units in favor of cheaper natural gas, and the first utility-scale solar project is under way in Central Kentucky.”

Enviros may not like Senator McConnell, but it would be rude to overlook his concern. He told the Herald-Leader that he feels a “deep responsibility” to stop the EPA from enforcing its carbon reduction plan. And how could he not?

“It makes me very angry,” he said, “and I’m going to do everything I can to try to stop them.”

For many in the coal industry, McConnell looks like a crusader, a conservative Kentuckian standing up against a green lobby that doesn’t understand how miners have been working hard to bring cheap electricity to America for generations. It’s a dying industry, Kentucky’s biggest industry, and McConnell is doing what he can to keep it from expiring on his watch.

Now, anyone paying close attention to the EPA’s carbon reduction plan will see that 30 percent reductions are not required across the board. In fact, each state’s quota is determined based on how reliant it is on coal. Washington state, for instance, is slated to reduce emissions by 72 percent by 2030 – which should be no problem as the progressive state already uses little coal. Arizona and South Carolina, too, will reduce their emissions by 52 percent each. Kentucky, by comparison, has only been asked to reduce its emissions by 18 percent by 2030, almost half the national average.

So is Kentucky’s plight really so egregious, and is it being unfairly treated by the EPA? Not really. But making the EPA out to be the big bad guy might have had something to do with McConnell’s landslide victory on Tuesday, when he took 56.2 percent of the vote. Democrat Alison Grimes and Libertarian David Patterson never even stood a chance, at 40.7 percent and 3.08 percent respectively.

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