In early May, Republican Mitt Romney made a pilgrimage worth about $1.7 million to the White Palace Ballroom in Wheeling, West Virginia. He was greeted by almost 700 donors assembled with the help of host Bob Murray, chief executive officer of Murray Energy Corp. and a coal mine owner.
Romney, who as Massachusetts governor vowed to close an aging coal-fired power plant because it “kills people,” has embraced the coal industry in his presidential bid, with Murray proving a key ally. He touts coal development as central to his aim of achieving “North American energy independence” at the end of a second term in office, a policy he is scheduled to discuss in detail today in New Mexico.
He also highlights the issue as defining a major difference between himself and President Barack Obama. At an Aug. 14 speech at a mine in Ohio owned by a Murray subsidiary -- and with the energy executive again joining him -- Romney said Obama is “waging war on coal” through over-regulation and that the president has broken promises he made to the industry to aid its transition to newer, cleaner technologies.
“If you don’t believe in coal, if you don’t believe in energy independence for America, then say it,” Romney said of Obama.
Ohio, one of the states most coveted by each presidential campaign, ranks 10th nationally in coal production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It is followed by Colorado and Virginia, also top battlegrounds.
With potentially a few thousand votes deciding who carries those states, Obama’s campaign isn’t yielding on the coal issue.
“Only one candidate in this race actually has a record of finding a clean future for coal and that’s President Obama,” re-election spokeswoman Lis Smith said in a statement. “He has increased investments in the research and development of clean coal technology and employment in the mining industry hit a 15-year high in 2011.”
Romney, 65, today will elaborate on his energy independence goal, aides said, which would be achieved through U.S. production plus imports from Canada and Mexico.
The plan calls for U.S. approval of TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline, which Obama in January blocked. Romney also proposes giving states control over drilling on federal lands within their borders and opening offshore areas off the coasts of Virginia and the Carolinas to oil and gas producers for the first time.
While Obama, 51, promotes what he calls an “all-of-the-above” approach to domestic energy production, he rarely mentions coal in speeches on the subject. His emphasis has been on alternative energy sources, such as wind power and conservation. His Environmental Protection Agency has set standards to cut toxic emissions, such as mercury, that the coal industry has said will be costly to implement.
The coal mining industry, by way of political action committees, industry executives and employees, has given about $5 million to politicians in 2011 and 2012, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics. The center’s data shows 87 percent of that total went to Republicans and Romney was the top recipient, collecting about $435,000.
The Murray Energy Political Action Committee and company executives and employees have given about $904,000, with all of it going to Republicans, the center’s data shows.
Murray, 72, who initially backed Texas Governor Rick Perry in the Republican primary race, said in an interview that he has become more involved in this presidential election than any previous one because Obama and his appointees threaten the “destruction of an entire segment of American society.”
Murray said he has no concern about Romney’s 2003 remarks that “I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people,” and that a coal plant in Salem, Massachusetts, “kills people.”
“I cannot comment on his statement from nine years ago,” Murray said. “I have spent considerable time with Governor Romney in 2012 and I know that he supports low-cost electricity in America and the coal industry as a vital part of that.”
Murray Energy Corp. bills itself as the largest privately owned U.S. coal company, with 3,300 employees in five states. The company produces about 30 million tons of coal per year from mines in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Kentucky and Utah.
Murray’s company was a part-owner of the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah, where six workers died in a cave-in and another three perished while trying to rescue them in 2007. Earlier this year, the mine’s operator agreed to plead guilty to two misdemeanor criminal charges and pay a $500,000 fine while maintaining its facility was safe, according to the Associated Press.
The battle over the coal vote comes as the industry is under stress. Once responsible for more than half of U.S. electricity generation, coal’s share was down to just more than 40 percent in 2011 as prices for natural gas dropped.
Obama has long had to grapple with the issue. Illinois, his home state, is the nation’s eighth biggest coal producer. As one of the state’s two U.S. senators, he supported increased coal production that would benefit southern Illinois’s economy while also potentially increasing global warming.
That record helped Obama win the backing of the United Mine Workers of America in 2008. The union hasn’t made an endorsement in this year’s race. If that doesn’t change -- and spokesman Phil Smith said it still could -- it would be the first time the union didn’t take a stand in a presidential race since 1980.
“If the decision had to be made today, we probably wouldn’t endorse anybody,” said Smith. “The major thing that has changed in the last four years is a large level of disillusionment among our membership in relation to the Environmental Protection Agency and the coal industry and a feeling that the end of this game will be the end of the coal industry.”
Still, Smith said, many coal miners “are very conflicted,” especially since Romney and his running mate, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, “are no friends of unions.”
-- With assistance from Mario Parker in Chicago, Roxana Tiron in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Jim Snyder and Joe Sobczyk in Washington. Editors: Don Frederick, Jim Rubin.