Coal's Last Political Hurrah?

Nov 5, 2012

Coal is playing a major role in this year's political battles both nationally and locally. To understand that in Kentucky, just turn on the T-V during a commercial break. From President Obama touting his support for so-called "clean coal" to Mitt Romney declaration "I like coal”… the jet black fossil fuel is witnessing a political resurgence. In 2008 the national debate revolved around curbing pollution, but this year politicians embrace one of the dirtiest burning fuels.

Kevin Kennedy is with the nonpartisan World Resources Institute. He says a lot has changed in four years. “As you look at the campaigns you’re certainly hearing much less about climate change than you did in 2008 when you had actually candidates for both parties supporting the U.S. taking action to address green house gas emissions.”

It's not just at the federal level. Coal is also playing a key part in the battle for Kentucky's sixth district U-S House seat, which isn't even in the state's coal fields. Blue Dog Democrat Ben Chandler currently holds the seat. Republican attorney Andy Barr wants to replace Chandler and Barr's got the backing of coal companies. Dressed like a coal miner Heath Lovell, who’s the vice president of River View Coal, cut this ad for Barr.

“Obama, Ben Chandler and the EPA are destroying us. They’re putting the coal industry out of business and it’s just devastating. This is our way of life. It means jobs for people around here. Good paying jobs. And Ben Chandler? He doesn’t even care.”

The United Workers of America decried the ad because Lovell presents himself as a rank-and-file miner. Still, charges stick. For his part Congressman Chandler also paints himself as a friend of coal - but one who advocates for mine safety measures and cheap energy. Chandler's campaign used Melissa Lee - whose husband died in the Darby Mine explosion in 2006 - to portray Barr as someone who puts profits over worker safety.

“Ben Chandler came to pray with the families. He would be the voice for the coal miners. He took on the coal companies tooth and nail. Andy Barr would be controlled by the coal operators. When you ride in their pockets that’s where you stay. If Ben Chandler’s voice is taken away there will be more mining fatalities.”

Republicans have wanted to unseat Chandler for years, but this year they have a better shot. University of Kentucky Professor Ernie Yanarella says that's partly because there's a Democrat in the White House who is unpopular in the Bluegrass.

“What is happening is that the incumbent, Ben Chandler, is being pilloried both for his apparent close association with Barack Obama and for showing any hint of being supportive of environmental regulations.”

So why has the national and local debate over coal's future gotten so nasty this year? All the attention is in part because the coal industry spent nearly ten million dollars on this year's elections. Yanarella says the battle seems misguided. For economic reasons, many utilities are moving to natural gas because it’s currently much cheaper – and cleaner.

“Coal very likely will have its last hurrah in the next three to five years and then experience a continuing and then precipitous decline.”

Coal executives see it differently. While coal jobs are up in the U-S profits are down. The companies blame the Obama Administration for implementing tougher restrictions on the pollution emitted by the nation's coal-fired power plants. While it’s made business more expensive, Kennedy - of the World Resources Institute - says the E

PA merely put in place a rule mandated by Congress decades ago.

“Those rules have been put in place at this point to protect public health and that has forced the utility owners in some ways to make decisions that they might otherwise have differed for a few years.”

With high energy prices, especially at the pump, the coal campaign seems to be working in this year's elections, even if analysts expect it to be a short lived resurgence in popularity.