In Montana and Missouri, coal is king. Montana is the country’s fifth-largest coal producer, and mining is as deeply entwined in the culture as it is in the economy. Missouri is a massive coal consumer: Its 40 coal-fired power plants supply 80 percent of the state’s electricity, at prices as low as 20 percent less than the national average. Coal giants Peabody Energy and Arch Coal are headquartered in St. Louis. So anything that threatens coal in those states provokes industry pushback and angers voters.
That’s a huge problem for Democrats heading into the 2012 elections. Big Coal can have a marginal effect on who wins the presidential election, but it could be the deciding factor in a raft of Senate races next year. And coal companies—along with their allies—are playing offense against Environmental Protection Agency regulations that they say will hurt their business. If Republicans ultimately retake the upper chamber, they may have Big Coal to thank.
Republicans need to pick off four Democratic incumbents to win the Senate majority. Of the 12 most competitive Senate races this year, six take place in battleground states (Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) where coal is crucial to the economy—and where the coal industry and the GOP have effectively declared war on the Obama administration.
Nowhere is that fight more evident than in the races of Senate Democrats Jon Tester of Montana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri. Already in trouble during an era of tea party ascendancy, both have to balance the demands of their coal-dependent home-state economies with the fact that the Democratic administration is rolling out a slew of new regulations that the coal industry hates.
It may prove an impossible balance to strike. “You’re looking at a problem that could lead Democrats to lose the Senate,” said Joseph DiSarro, a professor of political science at Washington and Jefferson College in the coal-rich state of Pennsylvania.
Under President Obama, EPA is introducing an unprecedented number of new rules to slash toxic pollution from coal-fired power plants. These regulations will require plants to cut emissions of mercury, a toxin linked to birth defects and nerve disorders, by 91 percent; to put new controls on the discharge of sulfur dioxide, a hazardous pollutant linked to asthma in children; and to restrict the release of sooty particulate matter, which is linked to lung disease and premature death.
Administration supporters call the rules long overdue and essential to protecting the environment and public health, but the coal industry and its friends in the GOP say they will destroy jobs and raise electricity rates. “The EPA regulations will have an enormous effect on the elections in 2012. It will be a huge deal in Missouri,” said James Harris, a Missouri Republican strategist. “The EPA’s rules will have an impact on Missouri’s manufacturers, utilities, ratepayers. The current administration and people like Claire McCaskill treat coal like it’s toxic or a problem.”
Although McCaskill has given speeches supporting coal, Harris said that Missouri Republicans intend to attack her vote to confirm EPA Director Lisa Jackson and her April vote against blocking the new coal rules. “McCaskill went along with Democrats on that—that vote will resonate next year,” he said.
The fight is also playing out in Ohio, where Sen. Sherrod Brown has always managed to bridge the gap between progressive politics—including environmental regulations—and the interests of his state’s blue-collar workers. But it may be tough for Brown to defend Obama’s coal rules in a state that gets 90 percent of its electricity from coal and houses the headquarters of the mega-utility American Electric Power, which owns a multistate fleet of coal-fired power plants. AEP officials say that the administration’s rules will lead to the closure of at least two Ohio coal plants; they are working closely with Republicans on the Hill to fight the rules.
Coal politics will be big in Michigan, where Republicans are going after Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow—and where coal supplies 65 percent of the electricity at cheap rates that help keep manufacturing cost-competitive. It will also play a role in Virginia, where Republicans want to capture the seat of retiring Democrat Jim Webb, in part by attacking the coal rule that could hit the mining communities in the state’s rural southwest corner.
In the 2012 battleground state of Pennsylvania—the fourth-largest coal producer in the country—Democratic Sen. Robert Casey says he struggles with the issue. “I’m very concerned with regard to the impact on jobs by regulatory activity,” he said. “I still think, though, that we’ve got to try to meet both goals, which is to keep our environment clean and keep jobs,” Casey told National Journal. “We try to take them one at a time and do our best to strike a balance, but it’s been pretty difficult.”
For now, the Senate Democratic leadership is trying to help vulnerable coal-state Democrats maintain that balance by shielding them from having to take stands that could backfire. Although the Republican-led House last week passed the first in a planned half-dozen bills aimed at gutting the EPA’s rules (many of which were written in direct consultation with coal lobbyists), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid doesn’t plan to let any of them come up for a vote in his chamber.
But the vulnerable senators may have to go on the record anyway, as the elections approach and coal-state voters demand a commitment to one side or the other—coal or Obama. “In Texas, they say that what’s in the middle of the road is dead armadillo,” said DiSarro. “Politicians who are going to try to balance environmental concerns with production of coal will have a lot of difficulty.”
This article appears in the October 1, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.