Within hours of President Obama's sweeping climate speech last week, Republican campaign committees reignited the charge that the president has declared "War on Coal." They blasted inboxes and airwaves with "War on Coal" talking points, now aimed squarely at Democrats running in Senate and House races in 2014.
The "War on Coal campaign" failed to unseat Obama in the 2012 presidential campaign. And despite the potency of the rhetorical attack, it's unlikely to have much impact on the 2014 races.
It's true that President Obama's plan takes direct aim at the U.S. coal industry. At the heart of the plan are new regulations slashing carbon pollution from new and existing coal-fired power plants. It could well put thousands of coal miners out of work.
But it's not a given that it will cost Democrats politically.
Here's why: As National Journal reported last week, the political power of coal has fundamentally weakened, a shift laid bare by last year's elections. Between 2008 and 2012, the coal industry nearly quadrupled its political contributions, directing 90 percent of its money towards Republicans. But Obama still won comfortably in the four key swing states that produce the most coal: Virginia, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Thanks to a recent boom in cheap natural gas—which has brought with it a boom in domestic manufacturing—coal is a smaller piece of the economy than it once was. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are only 84,000 people employed in the coal-mining industry—a number that just isn't enough to make a difference in a national election.
And it may not be enough to make a difference in the midterms, where Democrats are chiefly focused on holding on to their four-seat majority in the Senate and where most political analysts say they're unlikely to muster enough new seats to reclaim a majority in the House.
As it happens, the four most vulnerable Senate Democratic incumbents—Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana—don't hail from major coal-producing states. They do, however, represent states in which natural gas is, or could become, a major part of the economy. In the House, there is only a single Democratic incumbent from a major coal-producing district: Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia.
Obama's climate plan was a shot across the bow to coal. But it was also a valentine to natural gas—a cheap fuel that has just half the carbon pollution of coal. The climate-change regulations, by freezing production of coal, are expected to further drive the market toward natural gas. "We should strengthen our position as the top natural-gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions," Obama said.
"The bottom line is natural gas is creating jobs."
And in Alaska, Arkansas, and Louisiana, natural gas is creating far more jobs than coal. In North Carolina, the state legislature is hoping to get a similar taste of the action.
There is just one coal mine apiece in Alaska and Arkansas, according to Energy Department data. There are only two coal mines in Louisiana. In North Carolina, there are none.
But Louisiana is the nation's second-largest producer of natural gas. Arkansas is the nation's eighth-largest producer of natural gas. Between 2008 and 2010, an explosion in natural-gas production helped make the state a major energy player for the first time. Alaska is the eleventh-largest producer of natural gas. In North Carolina, there is currently a moratorium on the technique of hydraulic fracturing, also known as "fracking," to extract natural gas. But there is an aggressive push in the state's legislature to lift that ban.
The states do consume coal-fired electricity. North Carolina and Arkansas get about half their electricity from coal. Twenty percent of Louisiana's power comes from coal. Alaska gets just 8 percent of its power from coal. But electric utilities such as North Carolina-based Duke Energy had begun switching from coal to natural gas for electricity generation well before the announcement of Obama's climate regulations simply because, as Duke Energy chairman Jim Rogers told me, it made good business sense to follow the market to the cheaper fuel.
"In North Carolina, there is certainly not much conversation about coal, but there is a lot of conversation about fracking for natural gas," said Thomas Carsey, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina.
Carsey says that the biggest issue in his state's 2014 Senate race will be the economy, and the fate of the state's 8.9 percent unemployment rate.
In Alaska, where oil and natural-gas drilling drive employment and are the top source of state revenue, it's unlikely, analysts say, that voters will be concerned about Obama's climate regulations costing Appalachian coal miners their jobs. "I don't think any of this will have much bearing on the Begich race next year," wrote Gerald McBeath, a political science professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, in an e-mail to National Journal. "His record will be scrutinized with what he's done for the state—including whether he's 'saved' Eielson F-16s," he said, of Begich's efforts to ensure that a squadron of military planes are housed at an Alaska military base.
"There will be a negative associated with Republicans who thought he 'stole' the 2008 election from [former Republican Sen. Ted] Stevens."
Republican operatives say the broader point of their "War on Coal" attack is that Obama is abusing his executive authority to crack down on the energy industry at large—a message that they believe will still resonate in red states, whether or not they're coal producers.
"It's not just about coal regulations. Barack Obama and Harry Reid have been very clear that coal is first, oil is next," wrote National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Brook Hougesen, in an e-mail to National Journal. "They want to empower the EPA to take an even MORE aggressive role than it has today. That means more red tape regulation, more government headaches, more fees, more taxes, and more costs that would cripple entire industries and destroy jobs. A War on Coal is only the first phase of the radical left's plan. ... Men and women like driving their car, watching TV, using their iPhones and iPads, sending e-mails, and using Facebook. They like cooking with a stove instead of over a campfire. They like their homes to be lit by more than a candle. Americans are beginning to realize that the Democrats' 'War on Coal' and 'War on Oil' is really a 'War on Modernity.' "
Landrieu—who regularly sides with Republicans and against Obama on energy issues--is sensitive to that charge.
In a statement after the president's speech, she said, "The President and I have very different views on how to tackle the challenges of climate change. We both want to protect the environment, but I believe that overzealous regulations are harmful to our economy; … any call to single out the energy industry, including oil and gas, for increased taxes is unwise and counterproductive to economic growth."
That's the tack Democrats in true coal states have typically taken in order to avoid being hit by "War on Coal" shrapnel. In 2010, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin successfully ran for the Senate in a major coal-producing state by veering far away from the president on environmental policy—his campaign ran an ad showing Manchin aiming a hunting rifle at the "cap-and-trade" bill that Obama had tried to push through the Senate.
And that will likely be the message of Democrats running for the Senate in the two true coal states that will be in play in 2014—West Virginia and Kentucky. In those states, Democratic candidates will take on longtime Republican allies of coal. In Kentucky, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes will challenge Mitch McConnell, the powerful Senate Republican leader. In West Virginia's Senate race, Democrats are still seeking an opponent for Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito. Democratic strategists say they expect those two candidates to take positions similar to Landrieu and Manchin.
Not all coal-state Democrats have to make that concession. Last year, conservative super PACs waged the "War on Coal" campaign against Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, which does boast a major coal-mining industry and gets more than 80 percent of its electricity from coal. Brown stuck by the president's policies--and still won reelection handily.
In the House, meanwhile, Republican strategists are also hoping to use the "War on Coal" to unseat Democrats—but in the entire chamber, there is only one true coal-district incumbent: West Virginia's Rahall. And Rahall, who has staunchly campaigned on his support for West Virginia miners and opposition to the president's coal policies in the past, has managed to hang on thus far, despite previous "War on Coal" attacks.
Republican operatives see Democrats' new climate policies as fresh opposition against Rahall. While he voted against a 2009 climate bill, he voted in favor of the Congressional Progressive Caucus budget proposal, which included a tax on carbon emissions. "We're going to say, 'He says one thing, but look at what he does in Washington'—that's huge," said Andrea Bozek, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Republicans will also use "War on Coal" tactics to target Democratic Reps. Ron Barber of Arizona, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, Dave Loebsack of Iowa, Rick Nolan of Minnesota, Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire, and Pete Gallego of Texas.
But coal production is not a major piece of the economy in those other districts—and in Minnesota, Iowa, and Arizona, wind and solar production are likely to boom as a result of the regulations. Quietly, some Democratic strategists concede that the "War on Coal" campaign may be enough to unseat Rahall this time around—but the single congressman's loss would come at the expense of the president's historic gain.
This article appears in the July 3, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.