For Republicans in the U.S. House, the math is simple: Keep the coal seats, stay in power.
The very last piece of legislation the House voted on yesterday before leaving for the campaign trail is called the Stop the War on Coal Act of 2012. It’s a combination of five bills, four of which the House has passed in one form or another. All four have have gone nowhere in the Senate.
The bill, H.R. 3409, would block any federal regulation that could harm the coal mining industry for at least a year while delaying, rolling back or adding layers of scrutiny to dozens more regulations.
“This is about laying out a road map for the future,” said Representative Glenn Thompson, a Pennsylvania Republican whose district includes coal mines. If Republicans retain the House, he said, expect to see more coal bills when the new Congress takes over in January.
A look at the electoral map shows why the Republican majority made support for the coal industry’s priorities one of its priorities.
For Democrats to retake the House, they must win a net of 25 seats.
The top 12 coal-producing states, each of which account for at least 2 percent of the nation’s coal, include 24 competitive House districts, according to state coal production data compiled by Bloomberg and House election ratings from the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Republicans hold 19 of those 24 House seats.
Two of the remaining five, held by Democrats, are open seats. The others are represented by Nick Rahall, whose southern West Virginia district includes the Spruce No. 1 mine owned by Arch Coal Inc.; Mark Critz, whose southwestern Pennsylvania district includes Quecreek, known for a 2002 coal-mine accident; and Ben Chandler, whose central Kentucky district includes the headquarters of the Kentucky Coal Association.
Rahall, Critz and Chandler all voted for the bill. Among the companies lobbying for it was St. Louis-based Peabody Energy Corp., the largest U.S. coal producer by volume.
Representative Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat, said the bill, which was passed by a vote of 233-175, has nothing to do with policy and everything to do with Republicans communicating to constituents before Election Day.
“This is ‘Let’s message to our core constituency with legislation we know has no chance of passing,’” Quigley said in an interview.
The voters in coal country “tend to be blue-collar,” Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst with the Cook Political Report in Washington, said in a telephone interview.
Duffy said that message -- coal equals jobs, and less coal equals fewer jobs -- is being played across coal-producing states, especially in West Virginia, where in some towns the options for employment range from working in the coal industry to working at a job supported by the coal industry.
Long the mainstay of U.S. power generation, coal has been losing ground to natural gas after new reserves of that fossil fuel drove prices down to 10-year lows earlier this year.
Alpha Natural Resources Inc. of Bristol, Virginia, the No. 2 coal producer by volume, said this week that it will reduce annual production by 16 million tons, about 16 percent of 2011 output, and eliminate 1,200 jobs through early 2013. The company is among producers that have cut or plan to cut output this year after some power stations switched to using natural gas, and prices dropped for metallurgical, or coking, coal used to make steel.
A good test of the potency of the Republicans’ message will be Rahall’s re-election race in West Virginia, the second-largest coal state.
Rahall said he committed to voting for the Republicans’ five-part bill before he had read the 80-page measure. “Let me put it this way: Anything that harms our coal industry I have and will continue to oppose,” he said in an interview.
In fact, Rahall didn’t need to hear the end of a question - - “Is there a war on coal?” -- before almost shouting “Yes!”
“Who’s fighting it? I’m fighting it,” Rahall said. “Who’s conducting it? The EPA.”
The Environmental Protection Agency issued proposed rules this year that would effectively preclude the construction of new coal-fired power plants that don’t have expensive carbon-capture and storage technology.
Speaking on the House floor, Rahall said he knows “quite possibly better than anyone else” in the House “how the regulatory arm of government can wreak havoc on the people we represent.”
“The real front lines of this war on coal are not here in Washington,” he said. “They run through the hills and hollows of southern West Virginia. And the true soldiers in this war are our coal miners who simply want to do their jobs and earn an honest living to provide for their families.”
The vigor of Rahall’s argument may make a difference as he goes after a 19th term in the House.
When Republicans convened a press conference at the Capitol this morning, they had some laid-off miners on hand, including Franklin Kinchen of Drawdy, West Virginia, who said he is a United Mine Workers member out of work since May 1, when his job ended at a Patriot Coal Corp. mine.
Kinchen, a large man with a beard, a buzz cut and the nickname “Tiny,” described himself as eager to vote against President Barack Obama. Yet he’s sticking with another Democrat, Rahall, who delivered a stemwinding speech on the House floor yesterday in support of the coal bill.
“I’ve never been prouder to have him as my representative,” Kinchen said.
Republicans are running a candidate, Rick Snuffer, who is just as enthusiastic about coal and who doesn’t share a political party with Obama.
Obama, who has threatened to veto the coal bill, has become so unpopular in West Virginia that 40 percent of the Democratic primary vote went to an unknown who turned out to be a prisoner in Texas. Voters may have to be willing to ticket-split -- as Kinchen is for Rahall -- to win re-election.
The Cook Political Report’s rating has Rahall favored in the race.
“If he loses,” Duffy said, “coal is why.”