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David Caploe PhD

David Caploe PhD

David is a writer for the popular economic news site Economywatch.

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Big Coal’s Political Contributions to Congress Pay Off

As President Obama makes ever clearer his incomprehensible desire to do even more for the corporate sector than he has already, one industry that will certainly be reaping rewards is the coal industry, whose contributions in the 2010 mid-term elections were even greater than during the Presidential year of 2008.

Facing a host of new health and safety regulations, Big Coal spent millions of dollars in lobbying and campaign donations to influence the makeup of Congress in hopes of derailing what one industry official called an Obama administration “regulatory jihad” - a characterization Obama himself now apparently feels was justified.

Political spending by the coal industry exceeded the 2008 cycle, when the presidency was at stake and Congress appeared determined to move forward with a national energy policy designed to address climate change by cutting back on the use of coal and petroleum.

Over the last two years, the coal industry, along with its allies in oil and gas, electric utilities, manufacturing and agriculture, effectively killed any prospects for climate change legislation in the near future.

But after two major coal industry accidents, a huge spill of toxic ash in 2008 and a West Virginia mine disaster last April that killed 29 workers,the industry was bracing for new federal action that it feared will curtail operations and drive up costs.

Now, of course, it seems that they didn't have too much to worry about. Industry officials believed they could be facing a hostile administration that could seriously harm their business with a range of new federal regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, mountaintop removal mining, air pollution, coal ash disposal and mine safety.

These fears have been pretty much put to rest, but the black dust interest groups aren't taking any chances. The industry already enjoys some bipartisan support for killing or moderating these new rules and its broader margins in the House and Senate should ensure more favorable treatment by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Mine Safety and Health Administration and other federal regulatory bodies.

Coal industry spending on campaigns and lobbying is substantial and growing, although it is dwarfed by the far better-financed oil and gas, electric utility, financial services and health care lobbies.

Among the largest recipients of coal money were Republican and Democratic members who have sponsored or voted for measures to block new E.P.A. regulations on climate change pollution from the burning of coal and oil and who are most likely to support efforts to block other new rules.

These members include Representatives Roy Blunt of Missouri and Joe L. Barton of Texas, both Republicans, and Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia and Rick Boucher of Virginia, both Democrats.

Two Senate candidates, Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, and Gov. Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, also received sizable industry donations. The political action committee of Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio received more than $300,000 from mining interests, most of it from coal companies. The industry is counting on Mr. Boehner to reverse the previous Democratic leadership’s refusal to allow a vote on the measure blocking E.P.A. carbon regulation.

At this point, it looks like money well-spent.

Even before the campaign was over, coal mining companies had collectively contributed nearly $3 million to federal candidates, with three-quarters of the money going to Republicans, according to the campaign finance group. In addition, the industry spent more than $24 million on lobbying since the beginning of 2009, nearly as much as it spent in 2007-8.

Coal companies, in partnership with utilities and manufacturers under the banner of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, spent more than $15 million on advertisements extolling the virtues of coal and seeking support for federal money for research into cleaner methods of burning it.

The industry’s main Washington lobby, the National Mining Association, likewise set records for political spending last year. It saw the stakes as enormous and is hoping the Republican leadership will rein in federal regulators through pre-emptive legislation or funding cuts.

“With the prospect of legislative gridlock looking more and more likely,” said Luke Popovich, chief spokesman for the mining association, “our concerns turn to the regulatory side, and there we have very grave concerns that some of the regulatory agencies, particularly the E.P.A., appear indifferent to our mining communities and the worst recession since the 1930s.”

Mr. Popovich said he hoped that the new Congress would be more aggressive in holding regulators to account for the cost of new rules and would send signals to the administration to slow down new regulations on carbon dioxide emissions and speed up the granting of new mine permits.

“We’re very concerned about the cost of a range of regulations that have been proposed or are pending, and very concerned about what we view to be the very suspect science that E.P.A. says is behind the regulatory jihad against us,” he told the New York Times, apparently with a straight face.


The E.P.A. says it is not at war with coal mining companies or coal-burning utilities - indeed -but is carrying out its legal mandate to protect public health and the environment -- within limits, of course.

“E.P.A. does not have a problem with coal, or any other industry,” said Brendan Gilfillan, a senior agency spokesman, a stance likely to become even more pronounced with the "new" "pro-business" Obama administration.

“E.P.A. is committed to doing its job, which is to minimize the pollution that might come from these industries.

We'll see.

David Caploe PhD
Chief Political Economist
Economy Watch

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