Where the candidates stand on electric co-op issue
Protests and the pandemic have dominated the political landscape in 2020 ahead of the November 3 election, but there are many other issues this election will affect.
As the flagship publication of Kentucky’s electric cooperatives, Kentucky Living provides this overview of the priorities of local electric co-ops and the communities they serve, and the respective positions on those issues by the Republican and Democratic nominees for U.S. president and U.S. Senate.
Kentucky Living posed the same four questions to both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Republican candidate running for reelection to the U.S. Senate, and to Democratic candidate Amy McGrath. Each was allowed a combined 400 words to answer all questions.
We are grateful to both candidates for replying to our questions about key issues facing rural Kentucky and the areas served by electric co-ops.
McConnell vs McGrath
Electric cooperatives question U.S. Senate candidates
Kentucky Living: What is your vision for the energy future of Kentucky and the nation?
McConnell: Kentucky’s coal communities have helped keep lights on across America. In the wake of the Obama Administration’s disastrous War on Coal and his anti-America energy agenda, it’s more important than ever to create an environment supportive of domestic energy production to ensure America’s energy independence. I will continue championing domestic energy production to support Kentucky energy producers and to make us a safer, more secure nation.
McGrath: We must find ways to continue to offer affordable electricity to our communities, including manufacturers and those served by our rural electric cooperatives. We can accomplish that by investing in our current generation fleet, including the use of carbon capture technology on our baseload coal and gas plants.
Providing efficient and affordable electricity is essential to protecting our rural communities and helping them thrive.
For decades, Kentucky led the nation in the energy sector. By making wise investments in our existing infrastructure, including our skilled workers, and new energy infrastructure, we have an opportu-nity to lead again.
Kentucky Living: Coal and natural gas are integral to the reliable and affordable fuel mix of Kentucky’s electric cooperatives. What, if any, policy changes or regulations do you believe the federal government should create regarding fossil fuels, including electric coal plant generation?
McGrath: Kentucky can use our current assets, coupled with carbon capture technology, to secure a transition to a low-carbon, reliable, affordable electric grid. As investments in renewable, intermittent power like wind and solar increase, the grid will require reliable 24/7 electricity like that provided by Kentucky’s current coal and gas fleet.
We must be mindful of our communities who depend on fossil fuel jobs and the industries that depend on the cheap electricity they create. I will not sign any legislation that doesn’t have a plan for supporting workers in those jobs and our vulnerable communities.
Recognizing the sacrifices that coal workers and their communities have made, we must also pass the RECLAIM Act. Mining communities feel the health effects of coal even as jobs disappear, and we can’t let big companies get away with that.
McConnell: Kentuckians are lucky that President Trump understands the need to support our energy industry, not stifle its progress like the Obama administration did. President Trump issued executive orders overturning Obama’s so-called Clean Power Plan. Then, he directed his administration to work with stakeholders to develop new policies to support domestic energy production and tap into our greatest natural resources—American workers. The federal government is playing an important role in funding research into technological advancements that allow us to continue tapping into our abundant domestic energy resources while also building towards cleaner and technologically advanced generation techniques. Going forward, we must maintain our focus on energy efficiency, security and innovation.
Kentucky Living: If, in the future, the federal government mandates a carbon neutral target, what would you do to help Kentucky maintain the low cost, reliable energy that has incentivized critical industry to locate in our state?
McConnell: What America doesn’t need is Democrats to gain power because they would immediately move to eliminate the way of life for our coal communities, ban fracking and implement the Green New Deal. We must stay consistent with the values of American capitalism by focusing on technology and innovation. Instead of setting guideposts that would ruin our economy, Congress should seek commonsense and actually attainable solutions to protect our environment.
McGrath: Renewable generation like solar and wind have a place in our economy going forward. But they aren’t perfect, particularly because of the initial investments required, and I will push for Kentucky to receive the necessary support from the federal level to use them. As we transition, baseload generation with clean capture technology is a requirement. Assistance with financing this technology is necessary to support our state.
Kentucky Living: Kentucky’s electric cooperatives work to attract and retain industries and create jobs here. What is your plan to rebuild and upgrade aging infrastructure in Kentucky to encourage this economic development and improve the quality of life?
McGrath: First, we must build infra-structure for the 21st century, par-ticularly broadband. Without it, we will not attract the quality jobs of the future. I will support programs that help provide cooperatives that are interested in offering broadband financing at a low cost or no cost.
Secondly, I strongly support allowing rural cooperatives to refi-nance their outstanding debt through Rural Utilities Service to reflect cur-rent interest rates, without penalty. Allowing this refinancing will allow cooperatives to use the savings to invest in their systems, increasing offerings and reliability with no increase in rates.
McConnell: Since becoming majority leader, I have secured more than $234 million for Kentucky’s infrastructure needs. My efforts getting the 2018 Farm Bill across the finish line brought critical funding to Kentucky to fuel infrastruc-ture and economic development in our rural communities. I am also proud to support Kentucky applications for competitive federal grants that provide millions to improve our infrastructure, such as a $55 million grant to improve parts of I-64 in eastern Kentucky.
I have also directed $105 million for economic development, infrastructure and tourism in eastern Kentucky, including a new children’s hospital in Pikeville through the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Development (AML) pilot program. I have also secured record funding for eastern Kentucky through the Appalachian Regional Commission.
This funding supports the region’s economic growth by helping create jobs, combat the opioid epidemic and provide employment training for former coal miners to develop skills for new careers.
Trump vs Biden
Direction of U.S. energy policy at stake
Much of the contrast on energy issues in the 2020 presidential race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden is tied to the policies of the Obama-Biden administration.
The Trump administration has delivered on his 2016 campaign pledge to reverse or rewrite several key rules implemented by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency when Barack Obama was president, such as replacing Obama’s Clean Power Plan with Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule.
Election could sway court cases
The fate of those Trump EPA changes is pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which might not issue deci-sions in those major cases until after Inauguration Day in January 2021. If Trump is reelected, his administration pledges to defend the policies in court. Yet, a President Biden could ask the D.C. appeals court to hold off on issu-ing decisions so his administration can make changes that would be aligned with the Obama-era Clean Power Plan.
Last year, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler signed the Affordable Clean Energy rule, which effectively repeals and replaces the 2015 Clean Power Plan. The CPP would have forced some utilities to switch from coal to lower-emitting fuels as a primary means of achieving deep cuts in carbon dioxide emis-sions. The Obama plan was stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 and never took effect.
Electric cooperatives support the ACE rule because it provides more flexibility for states like Kentucky to work with generation and transmission co-ops to determine the most reason-able course of action. Conversely, the CPP’s aggressive timelines could have forced the premature shutdown of coal-fired plants, increasing costs for local co-op consumer members and complicating the reliability of electric service in the commonwealth.
Paris climate change accord
In addition to his pledge to restore the Obama-era EPA rules, Biden promises to not only rejoin the Paris Agreement, but also lock in the U.S. commitment so a future president can’t reverse it. Each of the nearly 200 countries that signed the accord in 2015 set their own individual goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the aim of reducing global warming.
“We’re going to reverse Trump’s rollbacks of 100 public health and environmental rules, and then forge a path to greater ambition,” Biden said in July. “We’re going to get back into the Paris Agreement. Back into the business of leading the world. We’re going to lock in progress that no future president can roll back or undercut, to take us backward again. Science requires a timetable for mea-suring progress on climate that isn’t three decades or even two. Science tells us we have nine years before the damage is irreversible.”
As part of the international deal, the United States agreed to help poorer countries pay for costs associated with climate change. In making his decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, Trump said it imposed an unfair economic burden on American workers.
“Yet one more gift from Biden to the Chinese Communist Party,” Trump said of Biden’s intention to reenter the agreement.
The Trump administration notes that U.S. emissions have decreased, even as the economy grew. The U.S. withdrawal from the agreement is set to take effect on November 4, the day after the election.
“The Paris Climate Accord is simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that dis-advantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries,” Trump said when announcing his intention of withdrawing, “leaving American workers—who I love—and taxpayers to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered fac-tories and vastly diminished economic production.”
Green New Deal
Biden says the massive environmental policy package known as the Green New Deal introduced by congressional Democrats in 2019 is a crucial frame-work for his plans to combat climate change. Under Biden’s Clean Energy Revolution, coalfired power plants, including any in Kentucky, would be shut down within 15 years, and the U.S. would reach net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050.
“When Donald Trump thinks about renewable energy, he sees windmills somehow causing cancer,” Biden said. “When I think about these windmills, I see American manufac-turing, American workers rising to dominate the global markets.”
The Energy Information Administration estimates that in 2019, wind and solar made up 9% of large-scale electricity generation in the U.S., while nuclear power made up nearly 20%, and hydropower made up less than 7%.
According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, the U.S. already leads the world in reduc-ing carbon dioxide emissions, while China’s emissions have increased the most. The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet reports that Kentucky power plants today emit almost 21% less carbon dioxide than they did in 1995.
Upon taking office, Biden pledges a series of new executive orders that go well beyond the Obama-Biden administration platform. He would encourage Congress to enact legisla-tion in 2021 to establish an enforce-ment mechanism to “ensure the U.S. achieves a 100% clean energy econ-omy and reaches net-zero emissions no later than 2050.” Biden pledges huge investments in clean energy, climate research and innovation. The $2 trillion plan would be funded by an increase in the corporate income tax rate, increasing taxes on the wealthy and using stimulus money.
“Joe Biden gave a speech in which he said that the core of his economic agenda is a hard-left crusade against American energy,” Trump said, in response to a July address by Biden. “He wants to kill American energy.
“He wants to impose massive energy taxes and job-crushing man-dates to eliminate carbon from the United States economy.”
On energy issues alone, the presidential contest appears to present voters with a choice of two very different directions for the United States.