- Associated Press - Thursday, October 8, 2015

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway tried to reinforce his friend-of-coal credentials Thursday, pledging to promote the industry and look for tax incentives to boost production as he distanced himself from a president routinely blamed for coal’s downturn.

Conway boasted of the multiple lawsuits that he has joined as Kentucky’s two-term attorney general, challenging federal environmental regulators.

Meanwhile, Conway’s Republican opponent, Matt Bevin, said Kentucky should defend its constitutionally protected sovereignty to resist anti-coal federal regulations.

“What can be done?” Bevin said. “Tell the EPA and every other regulatory agency that has no legal authority or recourse to enforce regulations, mandates and edicts upon us to ‘pound sand.’”

The rivals made separate appearances before the Kentucky Coal Association, less than a month before Kentuckians choose a new governor on Nov. 3. Reporters listened to the candidates’ comments through a live stream that the coal group made available on the Internet.

Kentucky is the nation’s third-leading coal producer, and both candidates touted their support for the industry.

The coal industry’s struggles have taken center stage in Kentucky politics, and Republicans have sought to connect Democratic candidates such as Conway to President Barack Obama, whose environmental policies are seen as anti-coal.

Kentucky coal production dropped from 121.2 million tons in 2008 to nearly 77.5 million tons in 2014. Thousands of coal mining jobs have disappeared in recent years, sending ripple effects through coalfield towns, especially in Kentucky’s Appalachian region.

Coal supporters blame tougher regulations enforced by Obama’s administration for the industry’s slump. Appalachian coal businesses have also faced higher production costs and competition from other coal basins and natural gas. Meanwhile, U.S. utilities increasingly have switched from coal to natural gas to generate electricity.

Conway promised Thursday to continue the fight against federal environmental regulations if elected governor.

“If there’s anything I can do to help bring coal jobs back to the coalfields, I will certainly do it,” Conway said.

“I will fight for markets for Kentucky coal,” he added. “I will be a voice within the Democratic Party to ask this particular EPA and this particular administration to get more reasonable, because they haven’t been, and they have unfairly targeted Kentucky.”

Conway said that years ago, as an aide to former Gov. Paul Patton, he drafted tax credits for coal operators. He said he’s fought to protect coal-fired power plants through his legal challenges to the EPA. He sounded receptive to looking for additional tax incentives to promote coal production.

“Come see me,” he said. “You’ll have a seat at the table. We’ll try to figure out together how we can make it as competitive as possible.”

He also promised to put together a “reasonable” team of regulators to oversee the state’s coal industry.

“I do believe in regulation,” he said. “I think most people in the coal industry believe in regulation. They just want it to be prudent and reasonable and allow people to go about mining coal in a safe way that’s profitable. And I will try to work with you toward those ends.”

Bevin countered that Conway’s support for coal was politically driven, and said the Democrat has taken campaign contributions from an anti-coal environmental group. “You’re being told a very different story now,” Bevin said.

Bevin said unleashing the coal sector’s full potential would make Kentucky “a beacon for manufacturing in America.”

The Republican businessman said his environmental oversight appointees would have experience “on the receiving end of what all those regulations feel like.” He said his executive style would be “hands off as much as possible, but hands on as much as necessary. This is exactly how I’ll govern. I want to be the weakest link in the chain.”

Meanwhile, Bevin reiterated his support for setting strict conditions for some people seeking public assistance. Bevin said his comments were aimed at working-age, able-bodied men or women with no dependents.

“You will not be receiving benefits from the state of Kentucky without having very specific expectations of you in return,” Bevin said. “If you do not provide those specific expectations, you will get nothing, period.”

Bevin didn’t specify what conditions they would have to meet.

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