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Bill Straub: Old foes Beshear, McConnell now seem to have a common enemy – the EPA

WASHINGTON – Gov. Steve Beshear and Sen. Mitch McConnell have never been tight as ticks. In fact you can say they can’t abide one another.

In addition to emerging from opposing parties, Beshear, a Democrat, and McConnell, a Republican, were involved in a rather direct and personal confrontation in 1996 when McConnell rather easily withstood Beshear’s effort to displace him in the U.S. Senate in what turned out to be a harsh campaign — no surprise given that McConnell was involved.

They have continued to swat at each other over the years, most recently over the Affordable Care Act, with Beshear embracing it wholeheartedly while McConnell has vowed to kill it dead.

But the old adversaries seem to have arrived at a common enemy – the Environmental Protection Agency. And the tag-team effort is underway.

McConnell is well known for his EPA animus, asserting that the agency has engaged in a misbegotten “War on Coal’’ and that he intends to use his position to knock it down a peg or two.

Beshear came late to the party, but he has worked hard to make sure his pro-coal bona fides are solid. During his State of the Commonwealth address in 2011 he rather famously maintained “Washington bureaucrats continue to try to impose unreasonable and arbitrary regulations on the mining of coal. And to them I say, get off our backs.’’

And he continues to carry out the coal industry’s bidding, toiling to thwart the federal government’s efforts to get a handle on the mining and burning of coal.

When he ran for governor in the 1987 Democratic primary, Beshear was considered the environmental candidate. Of course that had a lot to do with the fact that everyone else seeking the nomination would have gladly issued permits to operate sulfur mines on the grounds of all 120 county courthouses if it meant creating a single minimum wage job. Beshear, at least, would have hesitated before affixing his signature.

Still, there is evidence Beshear at one time harbored environmental inclinations that he now is trying desperately to conceal. In 1996, as part of his unsuccessful bid to oust his new soul mate, McConnell, in a campaign for the U.S. Senate, Beshear told Project Vote Smart that he supported a number of initiatives to clean the nation’s air and water.

Vote Smart, a non-partisan research organization that collects and distributes information about candidate for public office, released information obtained from Beshear’s campaign asserting that he embraced a strengthening of the Clean Water Act – anathema to the Commonwealth’s coal industry.

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During his successful 2007 campaign against incumbent Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher, Beshear assumed the self-contradictory position of acknowledging the dangers presented by global climate change while calling for increased coal production, which is something like admitting that alcoholism is a disease so let’s all drink to that.

His rationale at the time centered on the overly optimistic view regarding the development of technologies that would permit coal to burn cleaner, an ambition that rivals searching for the lost city of El Dorado. The coal industry maintains it has invested $50 billion over the past 30 years on clean coal technology but has failed to reduce pollution levels to anything approaching what is required to address global warming concerns. Besides, the increased use of natural gas to provide energy is making coal in any form nearly obsolete.

Much of the governor’s rhetoric is a traditional Kentucky politician’s bow to the coal interests, which has surged out of Frankfort like slurry long before he ever took office. Those interests remain powerful even though fewer than 12,000 people in Kentucky are directly employed in the industry.

Now Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd is calling Beshear and his administration out, rejecting a proposed settlement between the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet and Frasure Creek Mining, of Scott Depot, West Virginia, over violations of the Clean Water Act – which the governor was said to support at one time – at seven Eastern Kentucky sites.

The cabinet sought to fine Frasure Creek $310,000 for falsifying water samples, insisting that the penalty was “fair and reasonable,’’ just like, one can assume, the two-game suspension meted out to former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for cold-cocking his wife and knocking her out in an Atlantic City hotel can be termed fair and reasonable.

The firm could have been fined up to $38 million.

It didn’t take Shepherd long to deep six the agreement, noting that the violations “almost inevitably lead to degradation of the environment.’’ The process employed by the Beshear administration, he added, established a regulatory environment “where cheating pays.’’

And he wasn’t finished. Shepherd said the Cabinet for Energy and Environment has fewer employees now than it did in 1990 even though its responsibilities have increased. The outfit is so understaffed, he said, it can no longer effectively enforce the state’s environmental laws.

All this under a governor who, at one time, at least, was thought to be sympathetic to environmental causes. With friends like this … etc. etc. etc.

Meanwhile, Beshear’s new comrade-in-arms is taking care of things on the Washington, D.C., side, waltzing with the polluters that brung him to the dance in the first place.

It didn’t take McConnell long to declare war on the EPA after the Nov. 4 election positioned him to became the new majority leader in the U.S. Senate. He quickly announced that his top priority will be “to try to do whatever I can to get the EPA reined in,’’ adding that he feels “deeply responsible’’ for assuring that action is taken to prohibit the agency from regulating carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.

And it appears the upper chamber’s new head man won’t stop there. Regulations regarding the emissions of mercury and other toxic substances from power plants are also in Republican crosshairs, along with rules regarding smog, mountaintop mining and a new EPA initiative to gain greater control over pollution affecting streams, ponds and other bodies of water from mine waste.

Both Beshear and McConnell are doing this disservice fully aware that the continued burning of coal not only is having an adverse effect on the climate but is also having an impact on public health, especially on children suffering from asthma. Kentucky is never going to lead the parade celebrating Earth Day, but it could at least remove the barricades to blocking those who embrace environmental progress.


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KyForward Washington correspondent Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. He currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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