Mitch McConnell's mythmaking on coal jobs

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In this era of self-serving political myths, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, is perpetrating one of the most outrageous. Even in typically Republican Kentucky, McConnell is in danger of losing his Senate seat — for good reason.

He is a politician of minimal principle who has accomplished virtually nothing for the good of the nation in his 30 years in the Senate. McConnell represents much of what is wrong with a Congress that has lower public approval ratings than Attila the Hun.

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But McConnell desperately wants to retain the power and perks of high office. So he has resorted to the time-honored technique of scaring the voters to death. McConnell claims that he will save the coal jobs of Kentucky by fighting to repeal President Obama's regulations on carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants and other environmental initiatives. He said that there is an epidemic of "out of work coal miners because of the Obama [a]dministration."

In essence, he advocates giving industries the freedom to operate as they please. Never mind that coal-fired power plants are the largest source of the manmade carbon dioxin emissions that contribute to global warming, perhaps the gravest threat in history to human survival on this planet. Never mind the threat that emissions from coal-fired power plants pose to people's health. The state of Kentucky has by far the highest lung cancer rate in the nation, 22 percent above than the next highest state of Mississippi, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is also the state with the nation's greatest dependence on coal-fired power plants — some 90 percent.

The coal industry has paid McConnell well for his service. According to OpenSecrets.org, during his years in office, McConnell has been by far the largest recipient of coal industry contributions of any member of Congress. He has raked in $748,899, compared to $640,825 for his nearest competitor, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner (Ohio).

What McConnell won't tell you is that coal jobs had been declining in Kentucky long before control over carbon emissions was a gleam in Obama's eye. From about 50,000 jobs in 1982, the number of coal-mining associated jobs in Kentucky plummeted to 12,343 in 2013, according to the Kentucky Department of Energy. The great bulk of this decline occurred before Obama took office. We could repeal every environmental regulation on the books and those coal-mining jobs are not coming back. Kentucky's economic future lies elsewhere. But McConnell's eyes are locked firmly on the irrecoverable past.

The reasons for the decline of coal-mining jobs in Kentucky are fundamental. Especially in eastern Kentucky, mining has tapped out the richest veins of deep-seated coal so that underground mining has become increasingly expensive and energy dependent. From 2000 to 2012, coal-mining productivity in eastern Kentucky plummeted by 48 percent. Even in less hard-hit western Kentucky, productivity declined by 18 percent during the period, according to the Kentucky Department of Energy. Kentucky has also faced increased competition from other coal-mining states, such as Illinois and Wyoming, and from relatively cheap natural gas. In addition, forms of surface mining that require few workers are replacing underground mining. This includes mountaintop removal, the practice of blowing the tops of mountains that is devastating the people and natural heritage of Appalachia.

As Erica Petersen, environmental and energy reporter for WFPL radio in Louisville, Ky., accurately said, "Coal is the victim of the market forces that these same politicians champion in healthcare and banking."

The self-proclaimed free-market politicians that run the state of Kentucky actually prop up the coal-mining industry with tax breaks and subsidies. According to a 2006 study by the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, the coal industry accounted for an estimated $528 million in state revenues, but cost the state some $643 million in expenditures, for a net loss of $115 million.

Unfortunately, McConnell's Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, has not challenged McConnell's defense of the coal industry. McConnell will never change. But it is time for Grimes to start looking toward the future of clean, renewable energy for Kentucky and the nation.

In the words of Nan Gorman, the mayor of Hazard, Ky., a registered Democrat but also a longtime friend of Sen. McConnell, "It happens all through the generations of history. You have to accept that the man who shod the horses just had to go to another profession, didn't he? Change is necessary, and it is certainly here with us like, [sic] life and death."

Lichtman is distinguished professor of history at American University in Washington.