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Now Even Republicans Are Being Accused of Waging a War on Coal

Win McNamee/Getty Images

It’s not very often that Democrats can accuse Republicans of launching a war on coal. In Kentucky, Mitch McConnell’s opponents are savoring the chance.

A report from Chris Moody at Yahoo News earlier in August found that the Senate Minority Leader’s wife, Elaine Chao, sits on the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies—a non-profit that donated $50 million toward the Sierra Club’s efforts to shut down at least 16 coal plants in Kentucky. Kentucky Democratic state representatives have since seized on the report. They are urging Chao to resign from the board (something Chao and McConnell’s camp have said she will not do) and, naturally, making as big a fuss as possible about it. "If you're going to be a champion of coal then you can't play both sides," Steve Beshear, the state’s Democratic governor, told reporters on Thursday. 

McConnell isn’t the only Kentucky Republican fielding such attacks. Rand Paul has said that Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat running against McConnell, “she sells her soul” to “the same ones who hate Kentucky coal. (Yes, that rhymes—he was doing it in poem form.) A Democratic party spokesperson responded that Paul is a hypocrite, because of a 2008 remark in which Paul said coal is a “very dirty” energy source. 

Hypocrisy is always fair game in politics. But it’s hard—and a little silly—to suggest that Kentucky’s Republicans have been insufficiently loyal to coal. In 2013, the League of Conservation Voters gave Paul a rating of 15, out of a scale of 100. They gave McConnell a straight zero. It’s easy to see why. He voted in defense of oil tax breaks, for the Keystone XL pipeline, against EPA rules targeting coal pollution, and against the confirmation of the EPA chief Gina McCarthy. McConnell has also said, “For everybody who thinks [the planet] is warming, I can find somebody who thinks it isn't.” And that’s just the start of a very long list.

The irony is that coal’s salience as an issue may be receding, even in Kentucky. As my colleague Alec MacGillis has noted, coal employment has been on the steep decline for decades, meaning the industry’s jobs today is half of what it was in the 1980s. And support for the Obama Administration’s newly proposed rules on greenhouse gases is stronger than you might expect. According to Public Policy Polling, 44 percent of Kentuckians support the EPA’s rule compared to the 40 percent opposed to it—with support strongest among women, African Americans, and voters under age 30. Even if that poll doesn’t fully capture public sentiment—few do—it’s a sign of evolving sentiments.

That doesn’t mean the charges of coal disloyalty won’t resonate. The Kentucky Coal association, the trade group that represents coal, took them seriously enough to make a loud show in McConnell’s defense. They suggested that Chao’s presence on the Bloomberg Philanthropies board was the equivalent of having “someone on the inside” of the campaign to reduce reliance on coal. But maybe someday it will be possible to talk honestly about the dangerous effects coal has on our climate—even in the states that produce it.