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Ky. coal head exits 'partisan' fight over energy policy with advice for successor

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Ky. coal head exits 'partisan' fight over energy policy with advice for successor

Over six years after taking the helm of the Kentucky CoalAssociation, Bill Bissett is leaving behind an energy debate that he said hasgrown more contentious and partisan in recent years, with a call for greatercooperation and an "open mind" for whoever comes next.

Bissett will exit his position from the KCA on Nov. 1, witha replacement yet to be chosen. Whoever succeeds him, Bissett said, mustapproach the role with an open mind about the industry, the commonwealth andthe larger debate over the country's energy future.

"There is no perfect resume to do this job,"Bissett told S&P Global Market Intelligence. "But the more open mindedyou can be with that, the better. That's what I am trying to tell myassociation."

Bissett said his replacement will need to show a willingnessto adapt. "One of the most important things in a new candidate isadaptation. Right now we are in very partisan times, we have a Kentucky versusthe White House message that's been there some time now, but five years fromnow, this may be a very different industry," he said.

In a discussion with S&P Global Market Intelligence,Bissett outlined the challenges weighing down Kentucky's once vibrant coalindustry, placing much of the blame for the sector downturn and the currentclimate on the Obama administration.

"The election of President Obama combined with thereelection of President Obama not only went against what our industry thinks isbest for the country, but what the American people think is best for thecountry," Bissett said. "Decisions have been very political andideological in nature and have only become more partisan and divisive since Istarted in 2010 to now."

Bissett's exit comes as the commonwealth's coal industry faces someof the lowest levels of production and employment it has seen in generations.In late July,production data from Kentucky mines showed the lowest statewide output since1934 during the second quarter of the year. Meanwhile, sector employment hasfallen to its lowest level recorded since 1898.  

According to Bissett, that sharp downturn has helped producea growing sense of frustration and anger in coal communities that are unable tocope with the loss of economic activity and, most notably, jobs.

For the outgoing association head, that has bredincreasingly partisanresentment in coal-producing regions in eastern Kentucky and southern WestVirginia.

While other industry advocates have often credited this risein resentment directly to Obama administration policies, Bissett said a broaderDemocratic Party platform shift on the federal level away from fossilfuels alienated a large number of Kentucky residents.

Further, Bissett said the administration's impact on thecoal industry served as a warning to other farming and manufacturingcommunities across the country, sending the message that "You could benext."

For Bissett, this helps explain how Republican presidentialcandidate Donald Trump's full-throated support of the coal industry resonates across producingand non-producing states. "When Trump talks about coal in Michigan, wherethere is no mining, they hear, 'If they can do it to coal miners, I could benext,'" Bissett said. "They see it as the loss of strong, blue-collar,high-wage jobs in rural America, so what's the next shoe to drop in thatcase?"

Despite what he sees as a fiercely partisan energylandscape, Bissett remains confident about the future — both the broader debateand the coal industry itself — but not without a series of events that clarifythe importance of a coherent energy policy in the U.S.

Specifically, this means something that impacts consumersdirectly.

"That's going to be the thing where everyone says 'OK,we gotta get this fixed.' And that is what is going to motivate opinion leadersand politicians and people running KCA to say, 'Oh, now we have to really talkabout this,' instead of dividing into camps and fighting over specific issues,which is where we are now," Bissett said.

He allowed that some of this could lead to real progresswhen it comes to economic diversification in those communities most impacted bythe downturn, dismissing what he says is the suggestion by coal critics thatthe KCA is against it.

"If you're making guitars in Harlan Kentucky and that'syour livelihood, you're going to use electricity to do that … so I've alwaysargued that it doesn't have to be coal or economic development — to me it canbe coal and economic development," he said.

Bissett previously held the position of chief of staff andsenior vice president for communications at Marshall University. Beginning inNovember, Bissett will assume the position of president and CEO of the HuntingtonRegional Chamber of Commerce in his hometown in West Virginia.