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CAMPAIGN 2016: Bush’s speech to coal execs evidence of GOP’s industry courtship

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Manuel Quiñones, E&E reporter

A speech by likely Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush to a group of coal company executives yesterday was decidedly a low-key affair. Word only got out because of a leak.

But the former Florida governor’s trip to far southwestern Virginia, its coal mining region, can be seen as further evidence of the GOP’s continued efforts to woo pro-coal executives and voters concerned about the Democrats’ efforts to combat climate change.

Lawmakers from coal-mining states from both sides of the aisle have been largely unified in blasting the Obama administration’s agenda with respect to the fuel, calling it a “war on coal.” But Republicans have tried to gain the upper hand in the debate during the past several election cycles.

Bush spoke yesterday morning during a gathering of the Coal and Investment Leadership Forum at the Olde Farm Club in Bristol, Va., a private golf club near the state’s Appalachian coal fields.

Bush aides did not provide details about his remarks or his views on coal. People with ties to the event have, so far, kept their mouths shut. Still, his presence alone appears to have pleased industry insiders.

Beyond yesterday’s speech, the former governor has questioned the extent to which human activities are contributing to climate change and resigned from the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies, known for helping fund the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign (Greenwire, May 21). Bush has left a number of other boards, too, in preparation for a possible White House run.

Last year, Democrats criticized former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao for being a member of the Bloomberg board to attack her husband, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, as he sought re-election in Kentucky. She resigned earlier this year over its anti-coal policies.

Beyond Bush, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) announced his run for president last week holding a chunk of coal. Santorum was once a consultant for coal and natural gas company Consol Energy Inc. (Greenwire, May 28).

University of Virginia Center for Politics analyst Kyle Kondik said Democratic hostility to coal — whether real or perceived — has cost the party votes in Appalachia. The GOP is only too happy to exploit that.

“Republicans want to remind both the coal industry and voters in the nation’s historic coal-producing region that they are closer to them and their interests than the Democrats are,” Kondik said.

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts, once a strong backer of President Obama’s, is planning to address current and retired miners, plus their families, at an event in Morgantown, W.Va., tomorrow. Discussion topics will include coal’s downturn, concerns about worker benefits and the administration’s environmental regulations.

Republicans have indeed succeeded in swaying many coal country voters. The debate over coal’s future was key, for example, in last year’s midterm elections, when Republicans made significant gains in West Virginia.

But Kondik points to other examples of the pro-coal message’s limits. Republicans Ken Cuccinelli and George Allen used it during recent Virginia races only to lose statewide.

“While it may resonate in places like western Pennsylvania, southeastern Ohio, and western Virginia,” he said, “elections are not won and lost in the regions of those states.” Kondik called the debate a “niche” issue.

“If Democrats have effectively traded those Appalachia regions for better performances in places like greater Philadelphia, greater Columbus and Northern Virginia,” he said, “then it was a wise trade at least in terms of winning presidential races in those important states.”

Still, with the coal industry fighting for its life against tough market conditions and increased regulations, companies are not shy about participating in the political campaigns. Beyond votes, pro-coal candidates stand to benefit from the industry’s dollars.

In 2012, executives like Murray Energy Corp. CEO Robert Murray, Oxbow Corp. CEO Bill Koch, Alliance Resource Partners LP head Joseph Craft and Alpha Natural Resources Inc. CEO Kevin Crutchfield helped bankroll opposition to Obama’s re-election.

“For the past seven years, this administration has used unelected bureaucrats to push its politically motivated, radical regulations, which systematically destroys Americans’ access to affordable and reliable energy,” Christian Palich, president of the Ohio Coal Association, said yesterday about the president’s climate and energy agenda.

“Anyone who turns on a light switch in this country should pay attention to what the 2016 candidates are saying about coal’s role in our long-term energy future,” he said.

The debate over coal’s future will likely be part of the broader discussion about U.S. energy policy, the environment and climate change. Fuel boosters say such a message will resonate beyond mining regions.

Yesterday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he was running for president, in part, to promote energy independence (Greenwire, June 1). And during an April forum, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, another likely Republican presidential contender, called for the United States to boost energy exports to help shield Europe from Russian aggression.

When it comes to climate change, candidates Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have expressed more skepticism about human involvement compared with Bush — though when Rubio was speaker of the Florida House he did support energy efficiency measures and tax incentives for renewable energy (E&E Daily, March 13).

As for the Democratic candidates for president, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity has put out statements reminding former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of past pro-coal statements. She has supported action to tackle climate change.

And over the weekend, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) called global warming a top priority and said the development of cleaner energy sources would spur job creation (E&E Daily, June 1).

The environmental community is working to build on its fundraising and organizing efforts from last year with an eye on backing candidates up and down the ballot who support strong action on climate change.

Twitter: @ManuelQ | Email: mquinones@eenews.net

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