For all the Republican rhetoric about President Obama’s “war on coal,” there isn’t really a lot that Mitt Romney could do as Obama’s successor to turn around the decline in an industry that has long been the mainstay of the nation’s power supply.
The GOP presidential candidate seemed to tacitly acknowledge that fact last week in his much ballyhooed “energy independence” plan, which mentions oil 10 times more than it does coal and gives almost as much attention to renewable energy as it does to one of America’s most abundant fossil fuels.
The word “coal” only shows up 15 times in Romney’s 21-page energy plan, compared with 11 citations for wind and 14 for solar. Oil is mentioned 154 times and natural gas 83. Nuclear power comes in last with just seven mentions.
In broad terms only, Romney’s plan expresses support for coal and seeks to relax or overturn environmental regulations targeting the industry—a promise that Romney has already articulated and one that will be tough to fulfill if he becomes president.
The lack of attention paid to coal in Romney’s plan is noteworthy because the Republican Party has been fiercely attacking Democrats for the Obama administration’s crackdown on emissions from coal-fired power plants. West Virginia state Del. Rick Snuffer, a Republican seeking to unseat longtime Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall, had been scheduled to speak on the Democrats’ supposed anti-coal policies Monday at the Republican National Convention, but the day’s events were canceled.
Romney has joined the attacks. Standing alongside miners at an Ohio mine earlier this month, Romney referenced comments that Obama made in 2008: “He said you can go out and build a new coal plant, but if you do you’ll go bankrupt. That’s another promise he’s intent on keeping.”
Criticizing Obama is the easy part. Reversing a steady drop in the use of coal is much harder. Historically, coal has produced half the nation’s electricity and is expected to produce just under 40 percent of the power through 2035. But a confluence of low natural-gas prices, aging coal-fired power plants, a stagnant economy, and stricter environmental rules have dropped coal’s share of the electricity pie by 10 percent in the past four years—with natural gas’s share rising about the same amount.
Many of the reasons for coal’s decline are beyond the federal government’s control, but the Environmental Protection Agency is also a key factor. Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel for power production and causes twice as many emissions as natural gas. It emits the most greenhouse gases as well as traditional pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. That’s why it faces the brunt of tougher EPA rules, some of which have been in the works for two decades.
No matter what Romney promises, most EPA regulations will be difficult to roll back because several court decisions, including one from the Supreme Court, have upheld the agency’s authority under the Clean Air Act. The most likely scenario under a Romney administration is that some rules would be relaxed or delayed. If Republicans control both chambers of Congress, it’s possible that some of the most controversial rules, such as the proposed power-plant regulations, could be overturned. But experts on all sides of the fight agree that would be a Herculean task no matter who wins on Election Day.