"And by the way, I like coal," remarked Mitt Romney during the first presidential debate last Wednesday night. And if any industry likes Romney back, coal ranks up there along with finance and oil.
Coal companies provide a product that causes mercury poisoning, climate change, and other environmental hazards. The increasingly profitable way of extracting it, mountaintop removal, the process by which a mountain is blown up and the coal beneath it is gathered with heavy cranes and machinery, is being blamed for poisoning waterways throughout Appalachia.
As regulators move slowly towards regulating coal, the industry is reacting with a political push that markedly favors Romney, who has attacked Obama's EPA regulations and promises a more coal company-friendly administration.
"I had a dream the other day that Mitt Romney won the election and appointed Jim Inhofe as Administrator of the EPA," said Peter Socha, the CEO of the James River Coal Company, during a conference call for investors this year. Inhofe is the U.S. Senator from Oklahoma famous for his steadfast denial of climate science, calling any notion that burning fossil fuels contributes to the greenhouse gas effect "a hoax." Listen here:
Last week, the New Republic's Alec MacGillis reported that Murray Coal, the company caught compelling its workers to attend a Romney rally earlier this year without pay, has leaned on its white collar employees to contribute heavily to the company political action committee. The pressure may violate campaign finance laws, but it is only one example of how the industry is attempting to influence the election this year.
Murray is one of 34 coal-related companies financing an aggressive lobbying campaign called the "American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity." The group financed tens of millions in pro-coal political ads, paid for organizers to show up at presidential campaign events spreading a pro-coal message, and has attempted some guerilla tactics to insert itself into both political parties. Though the ads demand that the voters "stand up for coal in this election," you won't find any disclosures with the Federal Election Commission because ACCCE's ads do not mention candidate names, the trigger that requires registration.
King Coal's many tools for affecting the debate -- from coercing workers, to campaign contributions and advertising -- are enhanced by the campaign geography. Swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania are heavily reliant on coal industry jobs and coal as a power source. This gives the coal industry leverage to lean on both candidates to pander to their narrow interests.
Indeed, four years ago, ACCCE's paid organizers managed to deliver several pro-coal questions to then-candidate Obama, who eventually told a town hall audience that he proudly supports the idea of "clean coal," a trumped up term invented by industry but with no proven technology. There is nothing clean about burning coal, and there is way to safely sequester coal emissions underground, as coal companies claim. Nevertheless, Obama provided a great deal of money for clean coal efforts as part of his stimulus measure.
The fact that coal companies were able to influence Obama in such a way is a grim reminder that an industry that provides a deadly, outdated product can win if it invests enough resources in the political system.