Appalachian governor remembers his coal roots

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 4, 2007


(AP) —

At first blush, Gov. Ted Strickland’s commitment to clean energy last week sounded even better than environmentalists had dreamed.

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One fourth - yes, a full 25 percent - of all the electricity Ohio produces should be made using alternative energy sources by 2025. Even Environment Ohio, the most vocal renewable energy proponents in the state, had asked only for 20 percent by 2020.

Then came the catch: Only half of the target the Democratic governor laid out in his new energy policy will be required to come from renewable energy -that is, water, solar, wind or biofuel made from combustible farm products.

The remainder could take the form of advanced nuclear or clean coal technologies, in other words, variations on the technologies dominating the electric market now.

The operable phrase had changed from “renewable energy” to “renewable and advanced energy.”

Strickland, a former congressman from Appalachia, is well aware of the facts: The number of coal mining jobs in America has fallen from 335,000 in the 1950s to just 79,000 today.

Three thousand of those jobs are in Ohio, mostly in the state’s southeastern section where Strickland grew up.

It was highly unlikely that Ohio’s first governor in a generation to hail from that part of Ohio would have carved the coal industry out of his administration’s most significant energy policy statement.

Still, a 12.5-percent target for renewables had Environment Ohio executive director Erin Bower crying foul.

She noted that 87 percent of the state’s electricity comes from burning coal, compared with a national average of 53 percent. Ohio is ranked fourth nationally in its contributions to the country’s carbon dioxide emissions problem, Bower said. Ohio ranks second nationally in the amount of those emissions coming from coal-fired power plants.

“The important thing is that the Legislature and our governor really listen to Ohioans across the state who are clamoring for alternatives to being so dependent on fossil fuels, which are putting Ohio at the top of the list for mercury pollution and smog and soot pollution,” she said.

To qualify under Strickland’s plan, a clean coal plant must control or prevent 80 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions that would come from a traditional plant.

Knowing Strickland would face this policy battle if elected, energy interests lined his campaign coffers generously last year.

FirstEnergy president and chief executive Tony Alexander and his wife, Becky, gave a combined $25,000, and the firm’s Political Action Committee gave another $12,500. Cinergy chairman and chief executive James Rogers gave $10,000. A group of American Electric Power executives, led by chairman Michael Morris, gave more than $11,000.

Coal magnate Wayne Boich also gave the Strickland campaign $10,000. And the United Mine Workers’ Political Action Committee, representing unionized coal miners, gave the Strickland campaign $15,000, including $10,000 on Election Day, state campaign finance filings show.

Utilities and coal producers also gave handsomely to both chambers of the Republican-controlled Ohio General Assembly, where the governor’s energy bill is expected to land sometime in mid-September.

FirstEnergy entities gave more than $50,000 to state legislative races, Cinergy’s PAC $14,600, and AEP’s Committee for Responsible Government about $71,000, records show.

Meanwhile, members of the Boich family gave $182,000 in political contributions in 2006, and the Ohio Coal PAC an additional $35,000.

Bowser said she is hopeful that her group’s arguments in favor of renewable energy can be heard through the clinking of campaign cash.

“I understand there are special interests who are making sure that their voices are heard, but I think it’s important for Ohio’s leaders to also be listening to Ohioans who want the jobs renewable energy can provide, who new a cleaner environment for their children, and who want a stronger economy.”

Julie Carr Smyth is an Associated Press Statehouse Correspondent.