WASHINGTON -- For decades, the coal industry fueled not only America's factories, but its politics. It filled campaign coffers with cash and congressional offices with persuasive lobbyists who helped keep regulation at bay.
But factors beyond industry control are converging to create a difficult climate for an industry whose future could depend on its allies in Congress -- many of whom now are focused on helping the burgeoning natural gas industry.
As gas from the Marcellus Shale and other newly discovered reserves floods the market, gas lobbyists are flooding Washington to seek environmental regulations tailored to cleaner-burning gas -- a standard that coal plants can't easily meet. They have the ear of state and federal lawmakers who are working to encourage gas exploration as a way to promote American energy independence, protect the environment and bring jobs and revenue to their legislative districts.
Pennsylvania, which has an abundance of both resources, is ground zero for the coal-vs.-gas battle.
"Natural gas is bringing jobs, energy independence, economic growth, cleaner energy and a growing energy advantage. What natural gas gives us is an opportunity to get better control of our energy future," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.
But expansion of natural gas production can't be at the expense of jobs in coal regions, he said during a recent interview.
"Helping one isn't necessarily at the detriment of the other," he said. "This is about managing the energy portfolio."
Kathryn Klaber, CEO of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said lawmakers don't have to pick and choose because many who have gas in their districts also have coal.
"Those lawmakers, on a regular basis, are asked to choose between one or both. They should be for both," said Ms. Klaber, who is leaving the coalition toward the end of the year. Still, competition for market share, combined with the Obama administration's climate change initiative, have put the two industries at odds.
"I would say that these regulations are coming. I don't think it's going to be stopped," said Adam Riedel, a Washington, D.C., attorney specializing in environmental regulation. "The coal industry is going to have to find a path to survival, but I don't know how. A lot of [coal plants] are going to go away in the not-too-distant future."
About 42 percent of U.S. electricity is generated by coal, down from 53 percent in 1990, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Meanwhile, the share of U.S. electricity from natural gas increased from 13 percent to 25 percent.
Lobbying expenditures show the industry is prepared to fight. The coal industry now spends more than $17 million a year on lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That's a sevenfold increase from a decade ago.
"When things were good, what did they need anyone to lobby anyone for?" said Rick Kessler, a prominent natural gas lobbyist who used to work for the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
A new energy era
Times have changed, said Bill Banig, who spent the past 35 years lobbying in Washington for United Mine Workers of America.
At the start of his career he spent most of his time meeting with members of Congress sympathetic to miners. Back then, most of the coal mining states were represented by Republicans eager to help their constituencies. Democrats, meanwhile, wanted to help organized labor. And everyone wanted to get something done.
But today, there's too much partisan bickering, and parochial support means little when neither side has the wherewithal to get anything done, Mr. Banig said.
Now he spends a greater portion of his time meeting with regulators from the Environmental Protection Agency. It's a harder sell, because regulators don't face re-election and don't have the parochial interests lawmakers do.
He's also jockeying for position in a field of natural gas lobbyists, who have a greater presence on the Hill. Gas spent $140 million to influence legislation last year, up from $56 million a decade ago.
"It's competitive. They want to knock coal out as much as they can," Mr. Banig said.
Members of Congress have been allies to both industries, but bureaucrats are the ones making the rules now, several energy lobbyists and strategists lamented.
Add the increased presence of environmental groups pressuring members of Congress, and coal lobbyists have a tougher job than ever. Although their spending remains dwarfed by the industries they oppose, environmental groups have tripled their lobbying dollars since the late '90s. Last year, they spent $16.4 million, up from $9 million a decade ago, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Environmentalists who want to put coal plants out of business have become odd bedfellows with natural gas allies who want to capture coal's market share.
Time magazine's blog, Ecocentric, reported last year that Chesapeake Energy had secretly funded The Sierra Club's anti-coal campaign between 2007 and 2010.
"That signaled that the gas industry thought it had a chance to go after coal's market share, and anything they could do to move on that front would be beneficial to them," Mr. Riedel.
And coal lobbyists say things are about to get worse.
Mr. Obama has directed his administration to crack down on pollution, and Gina McCarthy, the newly confirmed EPA secretary, has pledged to dig in immediately so new policies can be implemented during this administration.
Even the most optimistic coal lobbyists predict the new regulations will at least freeze construction of new coal plants. And already, coal plants in Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere have begun shutting down, citing their inability to meet the proposed standards. Others are being converted from coal to natural gas.
"They're talking about a standard that new natural gas plants could meet relatively easily but a new coal plant -- even the most efficient -- could never meet it. The coal industry says it's a de facto ban on new coal-fired power," Mr. Riedel said.
Reduced coal supplies would result in higher demand and, ultimately, higher prices, which would cause more energy plants to shift to natural gas, he said.
The coal industry is lobbying to have a different, more lenient, set of standards than its natural gas competitors.
Regulators are considering the request, but the latest EPA proposal would require coal plants to use carbon capture and sequestration, a new and expensive technology that separates carbon from emissions and stores it deep underground. So far it's being used mainly in efforts to recover crude oil, not in coal plants, where operators aren't sure it will work well enough to meet changing EPA standards.
"Unless you have a vendor supplying the technology who's willing to give a warranty saying it's going to perform at the required level, how do you invest in that?" Mr. Banig asked. "We're looking at an aging coal fleet and, eventually, we've got to start replacing it, but with all this uncertainty, how do you do that?"
Worse, the technology to meet the proposed EPA standards isn't yet on the market, said Ben Yamagata of the Coal Utilization Research Council.
"If [regulation] is predicated on technology that is not commercially available, our concerns remain," he testified during a recent committee hearing in Washington.
Assistant Energy Secretary Chris Smith said the administration is working with the private sector to ensure the technology is commercially available.
"If we do not move forward on these technologies we are not going to have a pathway to ensure that coal is part of the clean energy economy of the future," he said during a recent hearing on Capitol Hill.
A 'diminished' place for coal
Mr. Kessler, the gas lobbyist, said there will always be a place for coal -- if a diminished one. The country's energy portfolio depends on diverse fuel sources to stabilize price volatility, he said.
"A lot of folks see gas as a replacement for the dying coal industry. I don't see it as killing coal," he said. "We're always going to need some level of coal."
The president has said he has an "all-of-the-above" energy policy that encourages a portfolio from all available sources, but coal industry advocates have trouble believing that.
"The evidence isn't bearing that out when it comes to coal," Mr. Banig said. "Look at some of the regulations and emissions standards. [Obama administration regulators] are definitely trying to back as much coal out of the generation mix as they possibly can."
The industry tried to hammer that message home in coal country. During the 2012 elections it poured $13 million to support Republican candidates and to run commercials accusing Mr. Obama and fellow Democrats of waging a "war on coal."
The message didn't resonate even in top coal-producing states, which handed victories to the president and fellow Democrats.
Within the coal industry it seemed like a strong message, but it didn't mean much to voters who were starting to pay less for electricity and gasoline. Still, the effort elevated coal's place in the national discussion about energy during the 2012 campaign.
Coal advocates were investing everything they had into a faux war, Mr. Kessler said. Now they're facing a real threat of regulation that could damage their industry, and their resources are drained, he said.
Both sides need to tamp down the hyperbole, he said.
"The best thing for coal is to become less religious. The sooner the war-on-coal rhetoric dies down and the anything-but-coal rhetoric dies down, the sooner we can look at this sensibly and actually figure out a direction for the country that makes sense," he said.
Lynn Seay, spokeswoman for Consol Energy, agrees.
"American energy is not and should not be a partisan issue," she said. "We need an adult discussion on the realities of our energy needs and how we can embrace what we have in abundance to meet those needs."
If coal advocates have toned down their war-on-coal messaging, the Republicans they helped elect are still hammering the message home in floor speeches, committee hearings, media interviews and news releases.
Reps. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and Bill Shuster, R-Blair, are among the fiercest defenders of coal.
They recently introduced separate bills to block environmental legislation. The Murphy plan, which was incorporated into a bill the House passed two weeks ago, would prevent regulators from considering estimates of environmental risk when weighing new rules for carbon emissions. Mr. Shuster's stand-alone bill would require congressional approval for new regulations affecting domestic energy production.
Democrats like Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., view the administration's efforts differently.
"I think the policy of the administration is really an attempt to be supportive of coal, to keep it as a viable source of energy in the future because it's so plentiful in our country," he said.businessnews - marcellusshale
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: email@example.com, 1-703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.