Thursday, June 02, 2011

Politics of Coal

Yesterday, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) gave a speech to the Kentucky Coal Association. In it the Senate Minority Leader assailed the EPA for it's "war on coal" claiming it cost America new jobs and access to cheaper energy.

Actually, the EPA is doing exactly what it was created to do: protecting human health and the environment, by writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by Congress. They oversee issues that impact land, air, water, endangered species and the nasty business of disposing of hazardous waste in a way that doesn't resemble chucking it in our neighbor's pond or stream.

Recently, the EPA set new standards for mercury and toxic pollutant levels at coal-burning power plants. Most would say this is a good thing. Mercury, cadmium, lead, and other toxins are generally not part of the food pyramid or a "balanced diet." Yet, McConnell and other Republicans continue to put the coal industry ahead of American's health. And why? Well, let's follow the money.

Over the past 20 years, coal mining companies have given over $16 million to politicians and their campaigns. No surprises that Senator McConnell was the top recipient over those two decades, taking in more than a half-million dollars for his re-election campaigns. These contributions bought them face-time and the powerful political allies corporations need to influence the laws (regulations) that Congress writes.

At the same time, the coal industry is lobbying our elected officials with multi-million-dollar ad campaigns designed to keep everyone "coal happy." Coal companies used to spend (at most) between $3 and $4 million per year on lobbying Congress. But in 2005 it jumped to a little over $6 million and then to an astonishing $18.3 million by 2010. In 2011 they're on pace to top the $10 million dollar mark for a fifth straight year.

Combined with their campaign contributions, it's safe to say that the coal industry has a healthy grip on the energy debate going on inside the halls of Congress thanks to hundreds of millions in profits.

But wait, there's more.

Coal companies also receive some sweet government subsidies, in the form of tax breaks, tax credits, royalties, and exploration and development breaks (yes, we pay THEM to explore and then let them keep the profit). In total, the Federal government paid out approximately $17 billion to the coal industry between 2002 and 2008. The industry organization "American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, or ACCCE, is made up of 48 different coal companies. Combined, they profited over $57 billion in 2007 and it's only getting better, thanks to millions spent on advertising and lobbying.

It's not surprising then, to hear that Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell gave a pro-coal speech to the Kentucky Coal Association yesterday. After all, they're the ones paying his campaign bills. It seems to fit with the culture of corruption that lines the bed in which industry and politicians cheat on the American people. What is surprising is the resiliency of a corrupt and dirty industry in the eyes of the American public. Despite coal mining disasters like the deaths of 17 miners in West Virginia and a massive coal sludge spill in Tennessee in 2009, coal still is rated favorably when it's associated with jobs.

Then again, I guess ANYTHING is rated favorably when tied to "saving jobs."