In Kentucky, the country's third-largest coal-producing state, voters this fall will pick between Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway and surprise Republican gubernatorial primary winner Matt Bevin. Conway is part of a legal challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed Clean Power Plan, which, in the pursuit of reducing the carbon dioxide emissions driving climate change, would impose new restrictions on emissions from coal-fired power plants. The challenge was recently dismissed by a federal court, which said it does not hear challenges to rules that are still in draft form. Conway pledged to move forward with a new legal challenge once the rule is finalized, which is scheduled to happen this summer (though with large-scale rules, rules often run behind schedule).
Conway suggested that, as governor, he would not implement a plan for Kentucky—a step that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has urged all governors to take. In policy terms, bucking the plan would not only separate Conway from national Democrats, but also from his Democratic would-be predecessor, outgoing Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who has been critical of the proposed standards but also is working to comply with them.
"Jack's work as the only Democratic attorney general to sue President Obama's administration to stop the new EPA coal rules is a clear example of how he always puts Kentucky values first, even if that means breaking with the national party," Conway spokesman Daniel Kemp said.
In West Virginia, where annual coal production trails only Wyoming, the Democrats' pick for governor is Jim Justice, a wealthy businessman who has a long history of owning and operating coal mines throughout the region. Justice told National Journal that he opposes the EPA plan: "The EPA overreach must come to an end. It is not fair to keep changing the rules for our hardworking coal miners. As governor, I would join the bipartisan opposition to these rules and work tirelessly to get our miners back to work by finding alternative uses for coal and diversifying our economy."
Justice cuts an atypical profile for a Democrat. He owns a handful of coal mine operations in West Virginia, and his biggest liability is likely to be a business record so long in the coal industry that it will be picked apart by his opponents. Though Justice is running as a Democrat, he hopes to inoculate himself from traditional partisan attacks by focusing on his individual merits, absent strong attachments to either party. Justice previously identified as a Republican.
All the same, West Virginia State Sen. Bill Cole, who appears to be the likely Republican nominee in the gubernatorial race, already is including coal as a central pillar of his candidacy.
But while Conway and Justice attempt to burnish their pro-coal credentials, it appears that Democratic 2016 presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton will continue advocating Obama's climate and energy policies. In a December speech to the League of Conservation Voters, Clinton said the carbon emissions regulations "must be protected at all costs" and described President Obama's actions to combat climate change as "just the beginning of what is needed."