Coal industry officials may consider toning down their “war on coal” rhetoric in the wake of President Obama’s re-election victory, but said they will continue to strongly oppose various administration regulatory initiatives.
Regional political leaders said they hold out some hope — although a small one — that the administration might be more open to working with states to ease U.S. Environmental Protection Agency permit reviews or moderate new air-quality standards.
“It’s incumbent on those of us from the coal-producing and coalconsuming districts to come together to try to work with the EPA to see what it is we can get them to do sensibly and quit running roughshod over the states,” said Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall, who won re-election last week to his 19th term representing Southern West Virginia in Congress.
But experts say that seems unlikely, and that the White House may focus even more effort over the next four years on reducing mining’s impact on the environment and local communities and curbing air pollution — including greenhouse gas emissions — from coal-fired power plants.
“I think the election returns may embolden Obama on a number of fronts, including a more determined effort to shift from black to green on energy,” said Pat Parenteau, who teaches environmental policy at the Vermont Law School. “He certainly doesn’t owe the coal industry or coal-state politicians anything.”
Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, issued a statement congratulating Obama on his victory, and saying his group “remains committed to working with the administration and the Congress on an ‘all of the above’ energy strategy that includes coal, our most abundant energy resource.”
The United Mine Workers union, which did not endorse either candidate, also congratulated Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, saying “in the end, they laid out a vision for America’s future that the majority of our fellow citizens believe is the right path for our nation.”
UMW spokesman Phil Smith added, in response to questions from the Charleston Gazette, that the union hopes Obama’s reelection would bring continued efforts to improve miner health and safety enforcement, something Republican Mitt Romney seemed likely to weaken.
While Obama secured an Electoral College victory in November 6 general election, Romney easily won the nation’s three top coalproducing states, Wyoming, West Virginia and Kentucky. Obama carried key swing states — Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado — where Romney had hoped his promise to loosen regulatory restrictions on mining would help decide close races.
Mining industry-backed candidates won some closely watched U.S. House races, most notably in Kentucky, where incumbent Democrat Ben Chandler was defeated by Republican Andy Barr in a race that frequently focused on coal policy. And across the country, Romney handily won all but two of the 25 largest coal-producing counties.
But industry-endorsed candidates lost six key U.S. Senate races where Republicans harshly criticized generally pro-coal Democratic candidates for not doing enough to fight new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency restrictions.
Smith noted that coal wasn’t necessarily the key issue in each of those Senate races, but that the UMW endorsed Democrats for each of those seats in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Montana, New Mexico and Indiana.
“That said, the candidates we endorsed in those races are all supportive of coal miners and their jobs,” Smith said. “They are all supportive of secure retirement for coal industry retirees and widows. They are all supportive of strong enforcement of safety and health laws and regulations.”
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said his group was disappointed that the industry’s campaign to unseat Obama was unsuccessful.
“We’ll go through the components of it and see what parts of it can be adjusted,” Raney said. “I suspect there’s going to be a lot of adjustment that goes on.”
But Raney said he feels like the ball is in Obama’s court to show coal industry officials the administration is willing to work to address its concerns about regulatory proposals.
“We simply have been victimized by them and targeted by them,” Raney said. “There needs to be a change on the side of the administration and then there will be a change by the industry.”
Industry experts and analysts have pointed to factors other than new regulations as playing much larger roles in the decline of Appalachian coal: cheap natural gas, competition from other coal basins and the miningout of the best and easiestto reach reserves.
Government and private forecasts have for years projected a decline in Central Appalachian production, fueled by quality reserves being mined out and increasing competition from giant surface mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.
More recently, advances in natural gas drilling resulted in extremely cheap prices, prompting many power producers to switch fuels. Additionally, new EPA efforts to reduce toxic air emissions have forced some utilities to speed up plans to close older, inefficient coal plants that couldn’t meet the EPA standards.
The latest data from the federal Energy Information Administration show that utility demand for U.S. steam coal has dropped 17 percent this year, in large part because of competition from natural gas. EIA is projecting the lowest coal consumption by the U.S. electricity sector in at least 20 years.
But in the wake of his own re-election victory, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin repeated his earlier belief that brighter days for the coal industry could be just around the corner.
“Obviously, the loss of coal jobs is a huge concern,” Tomblin said last week. “Hopefully, the coal market will rebound sometime here in the near future.”
Reporter Ken Ward Jr. specializes in covering the coal industry for the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette, where this article originally appeard.