The largest privately owned U.S. coal company warned in 2012 that if President Barack Obama won reelection, "There will be additional layoffs, not only at Murray Energy, but also throughout the United States coal industry due to Mr. Obama's 'War on Coal' and the destruction that it has caused.” For the coal industry, the next election is just as pivotal, since the winner will determine the future of Obama’s climate agenda and the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations. Bob Murray, CEO of Murray Energy and a GOP donor, is back in the news, laying off 1,800 more workers and blaming Obama for it.
In 2012 and 2014, Democrats played defense against Republicans' "War on Coal" attacks. That didn't work. So in 2016, likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton should simply embrace it: Yes, the party is waging a war on coal.
That would require embellishing Democrats' role in coal's decline. As Politico's Michael Grunwald writes, Obama really should get less credit, and blame, for coal plant closures and worker layoffs. Coal's true adversary is Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, which has "helped retire more than one third of America’s coal plants since its launch in 2010, one dull hearing at a time. With a vast war chest donated by Michael Bloomberg, unlikely allies from the business world, and a strategy that relies more on economics than ecology, its team of nearly 200 litigators and organizers has won battles in the Midwestern and Appalachian coal belts, in the reddest of red states, in almost every state that burns coal."
The campaign's success is partly due to savvy organizing, but environmentalists have also made persuasive economic arguments for shifting from coal. While federal regulations impact the standards new coal plants must meet and what kind of upgrades old plants must make, they don't specify who bears the cost of installing coal scrubbers and pollution controls. Utilities try to pass off the cost to the consumer, and the Sierra Club has been succesful in exploiting this: There are cheaper energy sources today than coal, so they've convinced businesses like WalMart and officials in red states like Oklahoma to back natural gas and wind rather than face a rate hike.
That's why Obama's role is overstated: Economics alone could spell a permanent decline for coal in America.
“If the EPA stands down under the next president, the pace of retirements could slow. But it probably won’t stop," Grunwald writes. Obama's plan to cut carbon pollution 30 percent from power plants by 2030 isn't very ambitious, taking into account that it doesn't push the power sector much beyond what it's already doing, while the administration has been effectively subsidizing coal on public lands for years.
In 2012, Obama insisted his energy policy consisted of "all of the above"—coal, gas, wind, solar. Mitt Romney mocked him for it: “The other day, he said that he was for 'all of the above' in the energy world, and I thought, how in the world can he be saying that? Then I realized, he probably means he's for all the energy sources that come from above the ground, all right?” And environmentalists criticized Obama's policy from the other side, too, saying he's undermining "our nation's capacity to respond to the threat of climate change."
Rather than pleasing nobody by trying to please everybody, Clinton should declare that she'll wage a war on coal—for cleaner air, better health, and a stronger economy. The political backlash would be minimal. As Alec MacGillis explained last year in The New Republic, "Employment in the coal industry has been in decline for so long in states such as Kentucky and West Virginia that the number of jobs directly at risk from any clampdown on coal is far smaller than the sweeping rhetoric about 'coal country' would have one assume." For instance, jobs in Kentucky's coal industry have shrunk by more than half in 30 years.
All this means that Clinton, while being sympathetic to Appalachia's economic problems, shouldn't hesitate to provoke Big Coal. Economic programs aimed at transitioning coal country's economy, like Obama has proposed in his budget, would do far more good than killing EPA regulations. And it's not like Clinton was going to win coal country’s support anyway.