SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Spend an hour driving across the Missouri plains and you’re sure to spot two visual icons: ranches of grazing cattle and, towering behind them, red-and-white-striped smokestacks belching smog into the open sky. It may not be as famous, but coal is as intrinsic a part of Missouri’s identity – and, more importantly, its economy – as barbeque and blues.
That fact creates a tough political problem for Missouri’s Democratic senator, Claire McCaskill, who already faces an uphill climb to reelection this year in a state that, although it elected her in 2006, hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton.
Missouri is one of the biggest coal consumers in the country: Forty coal-fired power plants supply 80 percent of the Show Me State’s electricity, at prices about 20 percent less than the national average. (That’s a big difference from the nation as a whole, which gets about 45 percent of its electricity from coal.) That cheap coal power is crucial to the success of Missouri’s manufacturing sector. Coal giants Peabody Energy and Arch Coal are headquartered in St. Louis. So anything that threatens coal power in Missouri generates fierce pushback.
In this election year, Republicans and the coal industry are working together to go hard after the Obama administration, whose climate-change and clean-energy agenda has imposed a slew of new regulations on coal pollution. The GOP highlights the rules, put forth by the Environmental Protection Agency, as exemplary of what conservatives say is government overregulation.
The regulations will force coal plants to slash emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, as well as the toxic pollutants like mercury that cause a range of health problems, from neurological damage to fetal deformities. That’s good for the environment and public health – but in order to comply, coal plants will have to pay for costly retrofits, which could send prices from coal-powered electricity soaring. And that could hurt Missouri’s consumers and economy.
That puts McCaskill – who is famously close friends with President Obama – in an almost impossible position. Already in the 2012 election cycle, conservative political action committees have spent more money attacking McCaskill than on any other Senate Democratic campaign.
Former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, Rep. Todd Akin, and businessman John Brunner are vying for the Republican nomination to take on McCaskill. Brunner began running ads in November saying McCaskill has “followed President Obama, voting for his massive spending and debt.”
Until recently, the usually chatty and effusive McCaskill dealt with critics of her energy stance by not talking about it. When her Senate colleagues in 2010 tried to craft a climate-change bill curbing carbon emissions, McCaskill made it a point never to answer press questions about her views on the issue.
But now, with the political attacks rising, she’s confronting the problem head on. During the first three weeks of January, she’s traveling the state on what her Senate office calls an “energy jobs” tour. Her goal: to publicly carve out a middle ground in which she fights to keep Missouri’s energy rates low – likely by pushing to delay EPA regulations – while also making a case to her constituents about why she won’t fight to overturn them altogether.
On Thursday, she toured the coal-fired John Twitty Energy Center in Springfield, asking plant managers about the retrofits and construction work needed to comply with the new EPA regulations. Scott Miller, the plant’s general manager, said meeting the EPA requirements could cost anywhere from $60 million to $200 million, all of which would be passed on to utility customers.
In an interview at Scooter’s Coffeehouse in downtown Kansas City, McCaskill laid out the challenge this creates for her – and why she wants to find a way to slow down or soften the regulations.
“It’s about the people of Missouri whose utility bills are going to go up,” she said. “I would love it if we didn’t have to rely on coal. And the more quickly we could not rely as much on coal, the better. The more regulations that we could get on coal that are affordable, the better.
“But I’m not going to go down a path that’s going to make it unaffordable for a state that’s struggling in terms of its economy. Manufacturing is a huge thing in our state. And those costs can be devastating to manufacturing.”
But she can’t go too far. She’s already under attack from the left for renouncing regulations on coal pollution; last year, the League of Conservation Voters spent $500,000 on television ads attacking McCaskill for opposing a cap-and-trade bill.
“I sometimes boast that I think I’m the only U.S. senator that had the far left and the far right run TV ads against me last year,” she said. “I have found myself in no man’s land when it comes to that subject.”
Her political opponents hope to keep her there. “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.”
It remains to be seen whether McCaskill’s efforts on coal will put her on a moderate higher ground – or a no man’s land – with voters. In interviews with about a dozen Missourians across the state, it appears clear that most don’t like President Obama – but are mixed on McCaskill.
At Gray's Café in Butler, Mo., over a lunch of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and corn, cattle farmers Bill Freeman and Raymond Daehl agree that they don’t like Obama or the coal regulations, but diverge on their views of McCaskill.
“This is coal country,” said Freeman. “They just keep putting more regulations on the coal-burning plant; they up the price of electricity because of these regulations. If you burn coal, you’re going to have smoke. If you have smoke, you’re going to have pollution. If you put regulations on the pollution, the price is going to go up.”
But he added, “Claire’s Claire, Obama’s Obama. Somebody made the mistake of putting those two together. And that may hurt her. She got associated with him. But if you’re going to be who you are, be who you are. I don’t think she rides on his coattails.”
But Freeman’s friend Daehl said for him the association is clear. “I did not vote for her and I will not vote for her. Her and Obama’s together, just like this,” he said, crossing two fingers together.
McCaskill knows she’ll be attacked by opponents for her close ties to Obama. But she hopes to make the case to her constituents that being friends with the president doesn’t mean she’ll back everything he does.
“Nothing would be phonier than me pretending I didn’t support Barack Obama and that he’s not my friend,” McCaskill said. “But I’m going to be honest with Missourians that I’ve agreed with him sometimes and not agreed with him sometimes.”