Republican candidates are stepping up their campaigns blaming EPA and its rules for contractions in the coal sector, a key employer in many swing states, despite recent findings showing that low natural gas prices are more likely to blame for the job losses than EPA rules.
During the Oct. 16 presidential debate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) criticized the president for attacking coal and other fossil fuels, saying, "I don't think anyone really believes that you're a person who's going to be pushing for oil and gas and coal."
Romney's campaign, along with those of GOP Senate candidates in a host of closely contested swing states, have also been running advertisements criticizing the administration's "war on coal," blaming the regulations for closure of coal plants and the mines that supply them.
Although the ads blame the agency's rules for the industry's hard times, an updated report from the Brattle Group, a consulting firm, found that retirements of coal-fired power plants are likely to rise above expected levels in the next several years due to falling natural gas prices and other market conditions rather than EPA utility rules that Republicans and others say are to blame.
The Oct. 1 report predicts that between 59 and 77 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired generating capacity will retire in the next five years, an increase of roughly 25 GW over Brattle's findings in a similar report released in December 2010.
The report says the "change is primarily due to changing market conditions, not environmental rule revisions, which have trended towards more lenient requirements and schedules," citing EPA's maximum achievable control technology (MACT) rule for coal- and oil-fired power plants and its vacated Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR) to reduce interstate transport of pollution.
The Brattle Group also finds that natural gas price changes or an aggressive price on carbon through a future carbon control mechanism would produce sizable shifts in coal plant retirements, and in the case of cheaper natural gas almost double the number of retired capacity due to the power fleet switching from coal power generation to cheaper gas power generation.
Regardless of the reasons for the coal sector's contraction, industry supporters say the GOP messaging plays well with Democrats and independents, especially in swing states. A poll released Sept. 20 by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry group, found that 64 percent of Democratic and independent voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia support using coal to generate electricity.
In Pennsylvania, roughly three-quarters of respondents expressed the sentiment, along with 72 percent in Ohio and 65 percent in Virginia.
"This election is going to be decided in states that support coal," Mike Duncan, the group's president and CEO, said in a press release. "Swing voters in swing states support the use of coal and are concerned about the EPA's politically motivated agenda."
By contrast, a late September poll by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Action Fund found that clean energy issues could make the difference in the Virginia race and other battlegrounds. The data, released Sept. 27, found that 59 percent of likely voters in battleground states were more likely to vote for the presidential and congressional candidates who support reducing mercury from power plants, and 57 percent would support the candidate that wants to reduce carbon pollution from power plants.
"Undecided voters clearly prefer the candidate who is moving American into a safer, more sustainable future," the group said in a release.
More recent polling confirms the view that the election is going to be decided in the key swing states where coal plays a considerable role, including Virginia, Montana, Missouri, Wisconsin and Ohio.
Virginia Senate Race
The issue may have the highest profile in the tossup Virginia Senate race, where former Gov. Tim Kaine (D) and former Sen. George Allen (R) are battling over a seat being vacated by one-term Sen. Jim Webb (D). According to the latest Real Clear Politics polling average, Kaine is up 2.2 percent, within the margin of error.
One source following the race predicts that the winner of the Virginia Senate race will be determined by the outcome of the presidential contest in the state, where Obama and Romney are in a statistical dead heat. However, the source believes that Kaine has a better chance of defeating Allen because of the attention being paid to the Senate race, which will likely prompt more Obama voters to fill out the ballot.
Allen is running an energy-focused campaign in the coal-rich state, telling the Bristol Herald Courier editorial board Oct. 12 that he opposes EPA's proposed new source performance standard (NSPS) to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new coal-fired power plants. "What the EPA is proposing is simply outlawing coal," he told the paper. "Coal means jobs."
Kaine, who has not weighed in directly on EPA's rules, is responding with an ad focusing on his energy plan and touting his support as governor for a clean coal plant in Wise County, which he said created 2,500 jobs. "As governor, I supported its construction. I also support offshore energy, conservation and innovative investments in wind and solar," he says in the ad.
But Allen is blasting the Kaine ad, noting in a release that the Wise County plant "could not be opened under the job-destroying EPA regulations that Tim Kaine's liberal environmental allies cheer while he stands silent."
The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) and the Sierra Club have endorsed Kaine and are supporting his energy message. "Tim Kaine invests in clean energy. George Allen would clean out our factories," the group said in a mailer.
In the Wisconsin Senate race between Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) and former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R), seeking to fill a seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Herb Kohl (D), Real Clear Politics declares this race a tossup with Baldwin up an average of three points. While EPA and the environment have not figured prominently, Thompson's campaign released an Oct. 16 press release accusing Baldwin of having a job-killing record, including voting in favor of EPA's boiler air toxics rules which Thomspon says will cost Wisconsin 75,000 paper mill jobs.
NRDC Action Fund assesses both candidates environmental records, calling Baldwin one of the most pro-environment members of Congress and noting that Thompson has evolved from having a GOP mainstream view on climate change in 2007 to not mentioning the issue today.
Other Senate Races
The Montana Senate race between incumbent Sen. Jon Tester (D) and Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R), which is also a tossup, has touched on EPA and the environment. Rehberg's campaign last month ran an ad blasting Tester's support for EPA mercury rules after a coal plant in the state announced it would close rather than comply.
"Liberal Senator Jon Tester could have voted to stop these Obama EPA regulations, but instead of standing up for Montana jobs, he sided with President Obama, and now folks in Montana are paying the price," a Rehberg spokesman said. Tester increasingly supports the agenda of anti-job environmental activists as they bankroll his re-election campaign, the campaign website notes.
The National Wildlife Federation Action Fund is backing Tester with radio ads thanking him for voting to support EPA's mercury rules this summer.
Also Tester's campaign has taken Rehberg to task for falsely claiming that EPA has launched drones to spy on farmers. "Once again, Congressman Dennis Rehberg is being unfaithful with the truth," a Tester campaign spokesman said. "From falsely claiming he's a rancher to breaking promises not to increase his own pay, this is another example of Dennis Rehberg misleading Montanans."
In the Ohio Senate race between incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) and GOP challenger Josh Mandel, Ohio's treasurer -- another tossup -- energy issues have been major role but not EPA. Bot campaigns have made energy independence a major focus and have taken opposing positions on EPA's mercury rule, with Brown supporting it and Mandel opposing.
LCV Oct. 5 endorsed Brown in the race, saying in a statement that he "is leading the fight to move Ohio forward, consistently voting to support the state's clean energy industry and the manufacturing jobs that go with it."