The coal industry says that it could a critical factor to winning the battleground states, or those states that are considered a toss up and the ones that each candidate would need to secure to win the White House.
Most analysts have said that as many as 12 states are for grabs, with the best known among them being those in the Rust Belt and the state Florida. The Rust Belt: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, where blue collar workers could go either way. But the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity says in its study that there are 17 states that are considered toss ups and that each candidate should take notice.
Of the 17 states, it says that coal-fired electricity is important to at least 13. These states are Arizona (11 electoral votes), Colorado (9), Georgia (16), Indiana (11), Iowa (6), Michigan (16), Missouri (10), Nebraska (1), North Carolina (15), Ohio (18), Pennsylvania (20), Utah (6), and Wisconsin (10). Collectively, they represent 149 electoral votes, more than half the 270 votes necessary to be elected president.
“We want both candidates to understand the political importance of coal in this election,” said ACCCE president and CEO Mike Duncan, in a statement. “Each candidate needs to explain how they will ensure an affordable and reliable supply of electricity that is essential to creating jobs and sustaining our manufacturing base in the U.S.”
He goes on to say that 200 coal-fired electric generating units in the 13 battleground states have already shuttered operations with another 46 units expected to close their doors in the near future because of current EPA policies. Additionally, and within those 13 key states that it names, the association says that coal generates an average 48 percent of the electricity.
“If the next president adopts the wrong policies, the 370,000 jobs and $90 billion in economic activity coal-fired electricity supports in these states will be threatened,” says Duncan.
What does this mean to both the corporate environmental manager and the corporate energy manager?
Politically, of course, they can’t determine the outcome of elections but yet they must be able to meet either their corporate environmental goals or those of their federal and state governments. To this end, many companies have — on their own accord — implemented policies to reduce not just carbon and other emissions but also their waste that would otherwise go into landfills.
The question then for both policymakers and for voters is whether market forces are the deciding factor when it comes to choosing fuel sources. For the most part, cheap natural gas is supplanting coal use — a trend that is expected to continue. Earlier this year, natural gas surpassed coal as the leading fuel used to generate electricity and it is not expected to look back.
So, what then is the federal government to do? Donald Trump’s energy positions are to rollback the environmental regulations that have curtailed use and to let coal compete in a “freer market.” He said that climate change is hoax. Hillary Clinton, in contrast, has wholeheartedly endorsed the transition to the New Energy Economy, where cleaner and greener fuels would replace the older and dirtier ones and in doing so, create jobs and new growth.
Much of the corporate community has seen the writing on the wall and has begun to take their own steps. Policymakers, though, are hamstrung by the constituencies they represent. In other words, since 2012, coal constituencies have won statewide races in West Virginia and Kentucky with their “war on coal” campaigns while clean energy advocates have prevailed in places like California and in New York.
Those are not exactly battleground states this time around. But in 2012, Ohio was considered to be the premier toss up state. So, what happened there? Remember at that time, it was battling to preserve its auto industry, or the one that had been hammered during the 2008 recession. At the same time, the state featured advertisements in which coal miners were on TV pleading with the federal government to ease coal regulations.
The auto campaigns won hands down. Will things be any different this time around?
In 2012, the biggest coal-fired utilities were in the heat of the battle for coal: American Electric Power and Souther Co., funding legal battles and trying to overturn the current rules affecting mercury, soot and acid rain, not to mention the pending rules affecting carbon dioxide. Now, those companies are in the midst of retiring their older coal-fired units and replacing them with natural gas and some biomass, and renewables.
“We’ve used coal-fired generation for decades and decades and have had the Ohio River to move the coal,” says Nick Akins, chief executive of AEP, in an earlier interview. “But 25 percent of our coal fleet is now retired. We will replace that with natural gas, energy efficiency and transmission optimization.”
For its part, Southern Company is retiring at least 2,000 megawatts of coal and oil plants. About six years ago, 70 percent of its generation mix was comprised of coal. Now that number is about 47 percent, and falling. Meantime, Duke Energy has been shuttering 6,800 megawatts of coal.
Increased government oversight may be coal’s most conspicuous villain. But its real culprit right now is a lot tougher: free market forces. Here, coal’s true competition is natural gas, which is now just as cheap and just as abundant. It’s also cleaner and easier to permit, enabling it to capture some of coal’s market share and thus make it plausible for the corporate community to stick with its internal goals of cutting emissions.