LOUISVILLE, Ky.—Gov. Andy Beshear, looking for another four years in the governor’s mansion, bucks Democratic Party conventional wisdom on handling climate change, by securing endorsements from coal mining interests while, according to Sierra Club leaders, rejecting a potential nod of approval from the environmental group’s Kentucky chapter.
And as he faces off this fall against Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, Beshear brings with him a carefully crafted image of a coal-friendly politician who goes out of his way to not offend red-state constituents who either deny climate science or simply don’t worry much about it while giving a nod to the less polarizing policies of “resilience” and “sustainability.”
Beshear’s energy plan, for example, does not discuss global warming or call for setting clean energy goals, as most states have done, let alone embrace what the leader of his party, fellow Democrat President Joe Biden, has envisioned for power plants: carbon-free electricity generation by 2035.
Instead, Beshear pursues what his administration calls a “balanced” energy strategy, even as the state has been hammered by deadly, extreme weather that has killed Kentuckians by the dozens. He’s touted new solar projects on former strip mines, and told local reporters he doesn’t want any more coal plants to close. He boasts of billion dollar investments in Kentucky’s emerging electric vehicle battery industry and joins neighboring states seeking federal money to develop hydrogen energy, but rejects millions in federal climate change planning money that could open up even more federal funds to mitigate climate pollution.
Polling suggests Beshear’s approach works for him.
According to the Morning Consult, Beshear, the son of a former popular two-term governor Steve Beshear, has earned support from Kentucky Democrats and independents, and he has a favorable rating from about half of the state’s Republicans. Beshear remains among the country’s most popular governors.
On Nov. 7, Beshear faces Cameron, who in May thanked former President Donald Trump for his endorsement, and declared “the Trump culture of winning is alive and well in Kentucky.” Cameron is a former staffer and protege of longtime U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who tirelessly fought former President Obama’s environmental policies for eight years, dubbing many of them as a “war on coal.”
Once solidly Democrat, Kentuckians have increasingly favored Republicans over the last two decades, though party affiliation is pretty much evenly divided with 1.5 million registered Democrats and 1.6 million registered Republicans. Yet, the Cook Political Report shows the governor’s race leaning Democrat.
Still, Beshear is likely to win the environment vote, whatever that means in a state where Trump, with his pro-coal and fossil fuels agenda, won by 30 percentage points in 2016 and 25 percentage points in 2020.
“I’m going to vote for him,” Tom Morris, a business owner in Bowling Green and chairperson of the Sierra Club Kentucky Chapter’s political committee, said of Beshear. “I’m going to give him donations. But I still have a bone to pick with him.”
“He just seems deathly afraid of making any statement that indicates he’s for the environment,” Morris said. “I was just in a meeting and we pretty much all agreed he needs to take more leadership on climate change. I think his influence would go a long way in the state of Kentucky and he doesn’t have to oppose coal.”
State Sen. Phillip Wheeler, a Republican from Pike County in the eastern Kentucky coalfield, put his support for Cameron this way: “I look at the question of who is going to be the more likely person to collaborate with the General Assembly on a Kentucky-first energy policy that emphasizes affordability” and utilizes “some of our native energy resources,” such as coal and natural gas.
Wheeler is part of a state legislature with a supermajority of Republicans that passed a bill earlier this year that seeks to prevent aging coal plants from closing. Beshear let it become law without his signature.
The Democratic Party, Wheeler said, has “declared war on the fossil industry” and he said he fears Beshear’s energy plan, while “vague,” would move the country in that same direction, while hurting his constituents’ pocketbooks.
Federal subsidies of renewable energy, Wheeler said, like those in the Inflation Reduction Act, are like a “back door” tax on energy.
The IRA, passed last year and signed by Biden, is the nation’s first comprehensive climate law, with various estimates of its price tag, from about $400 billion to as high as $1.2 trillion. At the same time, wind and solar power are increasingly cheaper than coal, Inside Climate News reported in January.
Neither representatives of Beshear nor Cameron responded to requests for interviews on climate or energy policy.
Kentucky Is Dead last for Solar and Wind
Kentucky has mined some 10 billion tons of coal since 1790 and it remains one of the nation’s biggest coal-producing and coal-burning states, despite a decade-long slide and a more recent free-fall in production and employment, largely because of an inability to compete with the low prices of other sources of electricity, including natural gas.
Kentucky coal production fell 65 percent between 2013 and 2022, dropping from 80.4 million tons to 28.5 million tons. During that same time, the state lost nearly 7,000 coal mining jobs, which declined by 58 percent, from 11,781 in the fourth quarter of 2013, to 4,837 during the same period in 2022, according to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.
Figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration also show that Kentucky is dead last among states for wind and solar production in the United States, though state officials note an uptick in the last couple of years in proposed utility-scale solar power projects.
Kentucky’s dismal renewable energy ranking frustrates Adam Edelen, whose company, Edelen Renewables, is working with partners to bring solar power and jobs to ailing coal communities in Appalachia, including a $230 million, 200 megawatt solar farm planned for a Martin County strip mine.
He said he was grateful that the Kentucky Economic Development Authority backed the project with tax incentives, announced by Beshear, and appreciates that Beshear is better on climate and energy policies than Cameron.
But he said that Kentucky still fails to recognize a nationwide, fundamental economic shift from fossil fuels to clean energy sources, and needs to do more.
“Gov. Beshear is strategically mute on the issue and Attorney General Cameron is strategically hostile to it,” said Edelen, a former state auditor who lost to Beshear in the 2019 Democratic Party primary. “This is clearly a political calculation.”
The clean-energy transition “is a force of history, technology and the environment,” Edelen said. “The decision is whether we chose to capture these winds or be run over by them.”
One young conservative voter, Gabe Chambers, a sophomore studying meteorology and political science at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, said he’s frustrated that neither of the candidates are talking much about climate. He’s active with the American Conservation Coalition, a nonprofit working to mobilize young conservatives around environmental policy, as well as with the Cameron campaign. Chambers said he understands the importance of the social and education issues that have been prominent in the race.
“It’s not one of the leading issues,” Chambers said of climate change. “I wish it would be. We as humans have a responsibility to take care of our planet, and we can do that through market-based strategies,” he said, adding that he believes Cameron is better positioned to do that.
Still, he said, “I kind of feel young voices in the party are not being heard.”
Regardless of which candidate wins, states including Kentucky are poised to see significant opportunities for investments in climate mitigation and adaptation in the next few years. The question is whether states will aggressively pursue Inflation Reduction Act funding.
RMI, a clean energy think tank and advocacy group, estimates that as much as $12 billion from the law could come to Kentucky in various ways through 2030, including through consumer rebate programs, tax credits, grants and loans. But the funding isn’t automatic, RMI warns.
“There is a huge economic development opportunity for every state, including Kentucky, to really attack this,” said Wendy Jaglom-Kurtz, a manager of the states team at RMI.
RMI is nonpartisan and does not endorse political candidates, but Jaglom-Kurtz said: “Governors and state administration can have a big influence in maximizing the benefits in a particular state.”
Cameron Takes on Biden’s EPA and “ESG”
Just three states have gubernatorial elections in November—Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi—and analysts will be examining data and exit polling for trends that may affect next year’s election, with control of the House, Senate and presidency on the line, as well as other state and local elections.
Despite strong headwinds in Kentucky that favor Republicans, Beshear has a good chance of winning, said Jessica Taylor, the U.S. senators and governors editor at the Cook Political Report. The outcome will probably be close, she said, adding that Beshear only beat Gov. Matt Bevin, an unpopular Republican, by about 5,000 votes four years ago.
Beshear’s approval rating is above 60 percent, and he’s got a sizable lead in fundraising and ad spending, she said. AdImpact, a firm that tracks political ad spending, expects the Beshear campaign or its supporters to outspend Cameron and his allies on ads $22.3 million to $11.8 million from May through election day.
Taylor said Beshear has built a reputation for showing up across the state, including during multiple crises, from devastating tornadoes that killed 80 people in western Kentucky in December 2021, to deadly flooding last summer in eastern Kentucky that contributed to at least 44 deaths.
Beshear was criticized after the flood for public comments that made him appear to not understand that fossil fuel emissions were making storms more potent, but his comments also conveyed a sense of empathy and compassion.
“I wish I could tell you why we keep getting hit here in Kentucky,” the governor said at the time. “I wish I could tell you why areas where people may not have much continue to get hit and lose everything. I can’t give you the why, but I know what we do in response to it. And the answer is everything we can. These are our people. Let’s make sure we help them out.”
In the campaign, Beshear has claimed credit for the state’s post-covid rebounding economy, including $27 billion in new private-sector investment, including $8 billion at two new electric vehicle battery plants that together plan to employ 7,000 workers.
Taylor said the Republican playbook in Kentucky is one she’s seen before, where the GOP works to nationalize the race, focusing on hot-button social issues such as transgender youth, sports and surgeries, and Covid closures. “So far, that message isn’t working,” she said.
For his part, as attorney general, Cameron joined a coalition of states opposing an Environmental Protection Agency proposal that set new standards to cut climate pollution from coal-fired power plants. “These impossible standards are the latest attempt by President Biden to unlawfully restructure the American power sector away from coal,” said Cameron in an August press release.
Cameron also joined 25 states in challenging Biden’s new fuel efficiency rules aimed at boosting electric vehicles, joined 19 states in opposing tighter EPA rules on soot from power plants, joined 22 states to oppose new efficiency design and technology standards for gas and electric cooking stoves that the Department of Energy said could block as many as half the gas stoves currently on the market. DOE has said the stove efficiency rules could save consumers up to $1.7 billion.
Cameron has also expressed hostility toward, and acted against, what’s known as environmental, sustainability and governance (ESG) investing policies, which often involve climate concerns.
On his own and with other state attorneys general, Cameron has joined investigations into major banks and investment companies, claiming Kentucky law prohibits companies from placing a climate agenda ahead of the financial profitability of their client’s investments. Cameron has said he wants “to ensure Kentucky companies that reject the Biden Administration’s anti-fossil fuel climate agenda have the same financial freedoms as those who accept it.”
The ESG wars, which have raged nationally, were not a battle Beshear opted to join in March when he signed a bill into law that prohibits managers of state retirement systems to base investment decisions on ESG factors.
Morris, the Sierra Club leader, said the Beshear campaign declined the Sierra Club endorsement out of political caution. “I think that’s due to what they perceive as the political realities in the state of Kentucky,” he said.
Beshear Is “Actually Doing the Work”
The Beshear campaign has welcomed support from at least some coal interests.
The Mountain Eagle, a community newspaper in Whitesburg, Kentucky, reported on May 24 that Beshear had been endorsed by several coal operators as well as the United Mine Workers Union.
“The endorsement of several high-profile coal industry officials may inoculate Beshear against some of the traditional attacks against Democrats, who have been painted as enemies of coal, and against Beshear in particular because he has embraced electric cars for use by state government,” the paper concluded.
Beshear may not be talking much about climate, but he’s been making some quiet progress “that certainly fits in line with a lot of the goals we have,” said Lane Boldman, executive director of the Kentucky Conservation Committee, an environment group that seeks to influence state policy but does not make gubernatorial endorsements.
The Beshear administration is working, for example, to help rebuild flooded-out eastern Kentucky communities on higher ground and with more energy efficiency housing, she said. With coal on the decline, the administration is exploring both more renewable energy as well as the potential for nuclear energy, she added.
In fact, since late 2019, Kentucky’s State Board on Electric Generation and Transmission Siting has approved 30 applications for utility scale solar plants, and four more are under review.
And even though the state declined to seek planning money from the EPA’s Climate Pollution Reduction Grants program, likely foreclosing the opportunity to compete for billions in potential climate mitigation funding as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, four urban areas of Kentucky cities are seeking those funds on their own. And the state, along with Louisville, are pursuing $50 million in federal grants to boost solar energy availability, Boldman said.
“Considering Kentucky has historically been a state that is built on a coal economy, a transition is inevitable,” Boldman said. “But a transition takes time and you have to do it in a way that takes care of the people because there is a pretty direct impact on the workforce,” Boldman said. “It looks like (Beshear’s) actually doing the work.”