If there is a war on coal, as many Republicans have alleged in attacking President Obama’s environmental agenda, Robert (Mike) Duncan is the industry’s new general. And for this GOP campaign veteran and grandson of two Kentucky coal miners, the fight is personal.
Duncan has been at the heart of the Republican political machine since his first job in politics as the state youth chairman for Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign. He ran two community banks in Kentucky during the 1980s while taking on a series of roles in the Republican National Committee. Duncan was George H.W. Bush’s assistant director of public liaison, worked on the 1998 campaign for former Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., and was a regional chairman for George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign.
In 2007, Duncan became chairman of the RNC, and in 2010, he partnered with Bush political strategist Karl Rove to establish American Crossroads, the super PAC that drove the GOP takeover of the House.
So when a key lobbying group for coal companies, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, named Duncan its new president and CEO in September, it was widely seen as a sign that the industry was bringing in the big guns. Over the past four years, ACCCE has become the most visible and aggressive face of the coal lobby in Washington and across the country. Its members spend heavily on efforts to weaken and delay regulations aimemd at coal pollution, as well as on national television ads—featuring a lump of coal attached to an electric cord—to make the public case for coal-fired electricity. The coalition has helped make coal part of the national political conversation, and Duncan’s job is to supercharge those efforts.
“We’ll make the case for coal-based electricity and how it will help individuals,” he said.
Along with his campaign experience and a vast fundraising network, Duncan brings a true believer’s vision to the cause. “I’ve only had two paid jobs in politics in my entire career: working on the ’72 campaign, and as chairman of the RNC. I took this job because of passion. Both my grandfathers worked in coal mines. I’ve chosen to live in Appalachia most of my life,” he said in an interview in ACCCE’s sleek Washington office.
Born in Tennessee, Duncan lives in the coal-mining town of Inez, Ky.—the same town, he’ll remind you, where President Johnson launched his war on poverty. Duncan's father has run a general store in McCreary County, one of the poorest parts of Kentucky, for 66 years. “I know what it’s like to sell people kerosene—their fuel of choice to heat or light their home—and what a high percentage of their income they have to pay.”
He says the forces now lining up against coal—new regulations on coal pollution and coal mining, a growing drumbeat to fight global warming, and a changing energy market—will hurt the people in his world and others like it. And his next campaign will be focused on telling their stories.
“This is about, how are we going to turn the lights on? I remember my grandparents talking about electricity coming to rural America. They were eternally grateful because Granny didn’t have to wash by hand anymore, and Grandpa could read books at night with electricity,” Duncan said.
“I’ve grown up with this all my life. These are things that mean something to me. How is this going to affect Appalachian individuals in poverty? How’s it going to affect the middle class? From a political standpoint, how’s that going to play out?… It’s not just about the miners, it’s about the communities where they are. It’s not just about the power plants, it’s about the communities where they are.”
Although coal has been the nation’s chief source of electricity for the past century, production is slowing and coal-fired power plants are shuttering across the country, many of them being replaced with cheaper and less-polluting natural-gas generators.
The world’s dirtiest fossil fuel is under attack as the chief culprit in global warming. Coal pollution also contains toxins that have dangerous, even deadly impacts on human health, including mercury, sulfur, and the precursors of ground-level ozone.
That’s why the Obama administration has used a host of Clean Air Act regulations to require that coal plants drastically lower their emissions. No matter who wins the election, the Environmental Protection Agency is under legal obligation to continue to regulate carbon pollution. Meanwhile, a quiet discussion is growing on Capitol Hill to consider a tax on carbon pollution as part of next year’s tax-reform effort, a move that could send the price of coal-fired electricity soaring.
At the same time, a major market force is working to drive down U.S. coal demand: a surge in production of cheap natural gas, which produces half the emissions of coal. Now that gas is less expensive than coal—and less likely to be subject to future regulations—utilities are shifting to gas as their primary fuel source.
So, Duncan faces an uphill battle in his defense of coal. While putting out heartstring messages with a human face, he will take a nuanced approach to the science and policy debate. He concedes, for example, that coal pollution should be cleaned up—eventually. He’ll make the case that EPA regulations are coming too quickly and aggressively and will lead to shutdowns of electricity generation.
“You can make a science case … but the economic case for this whole country just doesn’t add up,” he said. “Where are you going to get this electricity? How are you going to fire up the grid? We’ll run into that problem as we close down all these plants.… We’re not replacing it fast enough. Gas is replacing some, but wind and solar takes forever.”
One thing you probably won’t see is Duncan on television railing against the science that says fossil-fuel emissions cause global warming. While many Republicans have spent the 2012 campaign disputing climate change, their position—which is at odds with strong scientific consensus—has drawn criticism of the Republican Party as anti-science.
“You’ll never see him making an outlandish propaganda claim on Fox News,” said Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and presidential candidate who ran the Democratic National Committee when Duncan chaired the RNC.
“He’s very thorough and meticulous. And he’ll know what he’s talking about with coal. He has a thoroughness, he won’t leave anything to chance. He has a complete understanding of every facet of American politics. He’ll serve coal well. It’s a good choice they made,” Dean said.
In an ironic twist, Duncan acknowledges that one policy that will be essential to the future of coal relies on federal spending, specifically on research like that done by the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, an office championed by Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu in their push for cleaner energy.
Chu has been pilloried by the coal industry for a 2007 speech in which he said, “Coal is my nightmare.” But Duncan acknowledged that the future of coal could depend on energy-technology breakthroughs funded by the government. “They’re doing some great research on this at ARPA-E,” he said. “It could make a difference for the country.”