Big Coal Shoots at King, Misses

By Thomas W. Overton

There’s an old adage, “If you’re going to take a shot at the king, you’d better kill him.” No doubt this theme is reverberating around coal country boardrooms this week.

Big Coal was one of the most prolific industries supporting Mitt Romney and the GOP this season.  Though estimates vary and much of the information is not in the public domain, it’s clear that the coal industry poured tens of millions of dollars into supporting GOP candidates and conservative SuperPACs working to defeat President Obama. Much of it was also spent directly on pro-coal, anti-Obama ads.

In addition to the money, several coal companies worked with the Romney campaign to arrange pro-coal photo ops, including one high-profile event in Ohio staged by Murray Energy that drew allegations that miners had been coerced into attending (though it appears these claims were overblown).

All of this was part and parcel of the “War on Coal” rhetoric flying around this year, rhetoric that, as I and other POWER writers have argued, is vastly exaggerated.

What did Big Coal get for all this money and effort? As POWER Contributing Editor Kennedy Maize discussed yesterday, not much. Romney won West Virginia, Kentucky, and Wyoming, as he was certain to anyway, but lost every one of the swing states where coal money and influence was hoped to tip the scales.

So the coal industry is now left not only with lighter bank accounts but the fear that what little influence it may have had with the Obama administration has evaporated. Certainly it has no political chits to call in as the solar and wind industries appear to.

Though I don’t suggest there will be any sort of political “reckoning” from the Obama administration—it has no reason to further alienate coal state voters—it’s certain there will be no slowing its drive to replace coal-fired generation with gas and renewables over the long term. The EPA will roll on with its regulation of mercury emissions and coal residuals, with no coal-friendly allies in the administration to exert moderation.

If there’s to be any rearguard action, it will have to come from the GOP-controlled House. But with budget issues certain to dominate legislative attentions over the next year or two, the likelihood of Big Coal getting the support it had hoped to see from Mitt Romney seems very slim.

—Thomas W. Overton is POWER’s gas technology editor. Follow Tom on Twitter @thomas_overton