Hillary’s Complicated Relationship With Coal Country

Matt Vespa
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Posted: Jul 17, 2015 3:45 PM
Hillary’s Complicated Relationship With Coal Country

In the proverbial war on coal, Hillary Clinton, the presumptive 2016 Democratic nominee, seems to be on a charted path towards a complicated relationship with coal country. On issues relating to energy, the big enchilada on the menu is the Keystone XL pipeline, where Clinton has repeatedly dodged inquiries about giving her position on the matter–much to the annoyance of the environmental left. Yesterday, that annoyance seemed to have boiled over when the former first lady was heckled at a town hall meeting. Clinton said that global warming was an “existential threat,” and that she supported the Obama administration’s climate change initiatives. Those include reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by almost 30 percent by 2025–a slate of regulations that would certainly gut coal country. Yet, Hillary wants to make sure that these folks aren’t left behind (via National Journal):

Clinton wants Democrats to grasp the importance of Paris climate negotiations later this year and speak about global warming in a way that resonates with millennials, according to several Senate Democrats. That would be an easy way for Democrats to draw a clear contrast with a GOP presidential field dominated by climate skeptics.

She wants to keep her left flank clear as well, delivering a message guaranteed to appeal to the party's progressive wing. Clinton framed global warming as a pressing and serious threat and touted the climate credentials of John Podesta, the chairman of her 2016 campaign and a former climate adviser to President Obama.

But Clinton doesn't want Democrats to run too far to the left. According to several senators, she cautioned members of her party that Democrats can't forget that coal country is an important part of America and can't be left behind in the fight to tackle global warming.

"She pointed out to those of us who are passionate about climate change that it's a big country, and a lot of our previous economic growth was dependent on coal country, and that as we pursue a transition to a clean-energy economy, that it's not like Americans to leave folks behind. So we have to really think deeply about how we help folks who are experiencing challenges during this transition," said Sen. Brian Schatz in an interview.

That message offers up an olive branch to moderate Democrats who have felt spurned by the Obama administration's climate agenda, and it could help the party win over centrists in purple states.

"She was very much concerned," said Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia. "She said people need to realize what coal has done for this country. ... People don't realize that; they just want to condemn it now, and she was very compassionate about that." Manchin added that he invited Clinton to visit West Virginia so that she can see coal country up-close.

It’s this pragmatic mindset Clinton holds that doesn’t sit well with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. The article added that the left-leaning faction of the party is still uneasy about her Wall Street ties, which they think could lead to her taking a waffled stance on climate change.

Yet, it’s undeniable that gutting coal country is just bad policy. In March, the administration released its blueprint to kill American jobs and increase the cost of electricity reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In May, the Environmental Protection Agency released their new regulations to the White House for final review. In doing so, Americans should be prepared (or at least not shocked) for a 12 percent increase in their electricity costs on average. The cost of the new regulations is in the ballpark of $336 billion, according to the Institute for Energy Research. Right now, it’s still full steam ahead on these greenhouse gas regulations (via US News and World Report):

A sweeping federal rule that would curtail carbon emissions from power plants will likely be made even more stringent when it is finalized later this summer, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, widely regarded as a close ally of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The rule, known as the Clean Power Plan, was unveiled by the EPA in June 2014. The subject of more than 4.3 million public comments, it is the keystone of President Barack Obama’s climate agenda and vigorously opposed by conservatives and industry groups.

“We are very optimistic and confident that it will be stronger, in particular in the areas of renewables and efficiencies,” NRDC President Rhea Suh said during a press briefing Wednesday at the organization’s headquarters in the nation’s capital.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has previously said changes will be made to the Clean Power Plan, perhaps to interim benchmarks accused of being too ambitious.

The agency did not say, however, whether it would ratchet up other areas of the plan, as predicted by the NRDC, stating only that it had engaged in an "extensive public outreach process" in an email to U.S. News on Wednesday.

"We will take all comments into careful consideration as we work toward releasing the final rule this summer," the agency said.

The Clean Power Plan would mandate emissions reduction targets for each state: first, an interim goal to be achieved between 2020 and 2029, and then a final target for 2030.

Yeah, it sounds like there will be no mercy for coal country and for what? For starters, we’re at the most industrialized point in our nation’s history–and we’ve seen trends that point to better air quality. Since 2011, the Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment says the coal industry has lost 50,000 jobs. A May editorial in the Journal-Times–a local Kentucky newspaper–noted that 1,230 coal mining jobs were cut in the first three months of 2014; the highest quarterly decline in two years, it said. As a result, it’s no shock that Democrats from coal producing states often run away from the EPA during elections. Moreover, these are Democrats that Hillary is seeking to win back in 2016 for her campaign and her party as a whole. Winning southern white voters was part of the party’s preliminary autopsy after being slaughtered in the 2014 elections, but the white working class vote isn’t just a southern problem for Democrats. 

To think that it is totally misses the point since white working class voters are leaving the Democratic Party everywhere. And support for the president with this demographic is low across the country. Bill Clinton did well with these voters, which explains why he did well in the South, winning Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Louisiana, and (of course) Arkansas in his 1992 and 1996 presidential elections. Hillary shouldn’t–and I suppose she doesn’t–expect to win these states next year, especially when you back policies that attack an entire community’s way of life. As a result, you end up with a cool reception to say the least. Look how 2014 Senate candidates Alison Lundergan Grimes and Natalie Tennant fared in Kentucky and West Virginia, respectively: Grimes barely broke 40 percent of the vote, whereas Tennant didn’t even garner 35 percent when all the ballots were cast. She actually had an ad where she said she’s pretty much opposed to Obama's EPA agenda. It didn’t help. Will Clinton be able to chart these waters–be pragmatic and tough on climate change that seems to end with the gutting of coal communities? I'm sure we'll get an answer many months from now.

Lastly, the Paris climate negotiations with the United Nations that Hillary mentioned to Democrats on the Hill yesterday has one aspect that will only unite the right further; the Obama administration wants to leave Paris in December with an agreement that doesn’t qualify as a treaty, according to The New York Times. Secretary John Kerry is the point person in that effort. Right now, there’s a battle royale with these new regulations that–like Obamacare–will pit the administration against GOP governors who are probably going to be reinforced by more than a few Republican presidential candidates.