SPRINGFIELD, Mo.—Sen. Claire McCaskill was learning more than she probably ever wanted to know about how to retrofit a coal-fired power plant.
On a recent tour of the John Twitty Energy Center, a 200-megawatt coal generator that keeps the lights on in Springfield, a city that could play an outsized role in determining whether McCaskill has a political future, the first-term Democrat stopped in the control room to ask questions about the antipollution scrubbers being installed: Which toxins will the technology strip from the coal smoke—mercury, soot, sulfur dioxide? Would it keep the plant in full compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Air Act regulations?
Sporting a battered white hard-hat, McCaskill walked through a clanging, pipe-filled boiler room in the heart of the plant, pressing for more details on the cost of the retrofit and how much of that cost will be passed on to Springfield households. The answers: $200 million—and all of it.
News like that spells trouble for McCaskill’s reelection hopes, and those of other Democrats from 2012 battleground states (including Ohio, Michigan, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) where coal is crucial to the economy and where the industry and the GOP have effectively declared war on the Obama administration. Cheap coal-fired electricity is the economic lifeblood of the American Midwest. Drive through the steel towns of Ohio and Michigan, the farms of Indiana, and the cattle ranches of western Missouri and you’ll spot those ubiquitous icons of the Midwestern landscape—red-and-white striped smokestacks, belching coal smog into the open sky.
Missouri and Ohio, where Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown will also fight for his political future this fall, offer the most vivid picture of the Midwest’s dependence on coal—and the role it will play in the fate of the Senate. Coal plants generate more than 80 percent of each state’s electricity at rates 20 percent cheaper than the national average. Nationwide, only 45 percent of electricity comes from coal. Giant producers Peabody Energy and Arch Coal are headquartered in St. Louis. The mega-utility American Electric Power, which owns a fleet of coal-fired plants in 11 states, is headquartered in Columbus, Ohio.
So anything that makes coal-fired power more expensive is going to mean problems for Democrats such as McCaskill and Brown, both of whom already faced uphill climbs to reelection this year. In some ways, the gruff, gravel-voiced Brown, whom National Journal ranked as the fifth-most-liberal member of the Senate in 2011 (tied with environmentalist Sen. Barbara Boxer of California), and the effusive, matronly McCaskill, who ranked 50th-most-liberal—have little in common. But their political lives are both tied to the coal that is so crucial to the economies of their home states.
One of the hallmarks of President Obama’s administration has been a slate of controversial environmental regulations that crack down on toxic coal pollution. The rules, which are required under a 1990 law, will slash coal emissions that contribute to asthma, birth defects, lung disease, and environmental damage. They will also, eventually, lead to the shutdown of hundreds of coal-fired power plants. Aside from their positive effects on Americans’ health, the rules are one of Obama’s biggest gifts to environmentalists—and one of the biggest targets of his political opponents. Power companies have already announced that the regulations will shutter half a dozen plants in Ohio alone, with more closures throughout the Midwest to come.
But the fight over coal rules is just one of the battles in the coming war over energy, which is emerging as a top-tier issue in the 2012 campaigns. Oil and gasoline prices are skyrocketing and may break records this summer, slowing the economic recovery. Obama’s rejection of the proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have brought carbon-heavy tar-sands oil from Canada to Texas, has become a political lightning rod, as has his doubling down on support for clean-energy programs, despite the controversy over Solyndra, the federally backed solar company that went bankrupt.
Republicans, interest groups, and a bevy of conservative super PACs, many of which have close financial ties to coal and oil companies, are attacking the president on every flank of the energy conflict. At the same time, they’re fanning out to a handful of battleground states where they think an aggressively fought and funded campaign can pick off four of the Democrats whom Republicans need to defeat to take control of the Senate.
The Missouri and Ohio Senate races will be two of the most hotly contested and closely watched of these battles. Already, conservative groups have spent more money on efforts to unseat Brown in Ohio than they have on any other Senate race, and the spending in Missouri from groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Karl Rove-founded American Crossroads isn’t far behind.
This article appears in the March 10, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.