Coal Lobbying Down as Industry Throws Weight Behind Legal Battle

  • Producers slash spending as falling demand forces bankruptcies
  • Supreme Court halted carbon rule challenged by coal companies

Cash-strapped coal companies are reaching the conclusion that energy policy is a matter for the courts rather than Congress. As dwindling demand puts pressure on mining companies to cut costs and climate rules threaten their very survival, many are shifting scarce resources from lobbyists to lawyers.

"They’re not reducing their political efforts; they’re simply shifting tactics," said Jeffrey Berry, a lobbying expert and professor of political science at Tufts University. "As we’ve found with many EPA regulations, going to court can put a monkey wrench in the administration’s plans.”

“It may be a better investment than going to your friends in Congress and asking ‘Can we have this?’ " he said.

Lobbying spending by major coal producers in the U.S. is down by about half from $15 million in 2012, according to a Bloomberg Government analysis of disclosure filings. Alpha Natural Resources, which filed for bankruptcy protection in August, last year spent just a third on lobbying as what it had in 2012. Peabody Energy, the country’s top coal producer, halved its D.C. advocacy from $3.8 million in 2012, cutting it by 20 percent between 2014 and 2015. Those declines are much steeper than those seen in the rest of the energy sector, according to Bloomberg Government analyst Bob Meteer.

Among mining trade groups, which rely on member fees for their programs, the picture is even starker. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity cut lobbying spending by 51 percent from 2014, while the National Mining Association cut back 44 percent, according to Bloomberg Government data.

With shrinking resources, the mining groups said they see little to gain from lobbying the executive branch. President Barack Obama drew a line in the sand with the Clean Power Plan, an EPA rule that mandates a shift from coal-fired power to natural gas and renewable energy. Cheap natural gas is also stealing market share from coal.

"Trying to influence this administration is, at this point, a dead end," said Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association. The group’s changes in lobbying spending reflect a belief among companies that the courts hold greater opportunity for them than Congress, he said. It’s part of collection of states and companies challenging the EPA’s carbon rule in federal court.

ACCCE has taken a similar tack. 

"We haven’t had a lot of luck persuading the EPA to adopt policies that are reasonable, so we have shifted our advocacy outside of the beltway," said Vice President of Federal Affairs Paul Bailey. The association has devoted its resources to assisting states with their legal challenges against EPA’s carbon rules. So far, more than half the states have done so. ACCCE’s own suit against the EPA could cost anywhere from $700,000 to millions at a time when its budget is shrinking, according to Bailey. But it’s a better bet than banking on Congress or the White House, he said.

NMA’s Popovich cites the Supreme Court’s recent decision to stay the EPA’s Clean Power Plan as a vindication of the industry’s shift in strategy. "There is little Congress could have done on CPP. They’ve already passed two resolutions opposing it -- and the president vetoed those," he said. "But as we’ve seen, the courts have the most influence. All of the auguries are for a very positive outcome on the merits of the case."

Representatives for Peabody and Alpha didn’t return e-mail messages asking for comment.

Murray Energy, whose CEO Robert Murray has launched a one-man crusade to save the company he founded nearly 30 years ago, is an outlier among industry spenders. Bucking the trend, the company boosted lobbying spending by 52 percent in 2015, while also throwing its weight behind numerous legal challenges.

"For him this is a very personal business, and he is OK spending his own money to keep it going," said Lisa Camooso Miller, a partner at Blueprint Communications and former executive at ACCCE. "For him, its not about shareholders. He still believes he can influence the political process and that it’s worth it to try."

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