The Coal Industry Is Doubling Down Against Biden’s Climate Agenda

Denial, misinformation, and political organizing: How U.S. coal producers are fighting a last-ditch battle to keep their industry alive.
February 18, 2021, 6:25pm
Stacks from a coal-burning power plant dwarf a nearby home in Cheshire, Ohio.
Stacks from a coal-burning power plant dwarf a nearby home in Cheshire, Ohio. File photo by Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images

As a huge winter storm knocked out power for millions of people in Texas, a group representing the coal industry saw an opportunity. “Houston, we have a problem,” the organization Friends of Coal wrote on Facebook. “Coal is the solution.” Another post showed a solar panel covered in snow. “You are warm today because of a coal miner and a pipeline,” it read.

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The posts are part of a torrent of conservative statements blaming renewable energy failures for the Texas blackouts. And though such attacks can be easily debunked (the main source of the energy shortfall is natural gas) they serve a larger political purpose: rally a political base that can take back Congress from the Democrats in next year’s midterm elections. 

“Everyone must help all across America within the industry,” the coal publication Coal Zoom wrote earlier this year. “The majority of the House must be won back in 2022.”

The U.S. coal industry is in financial freefall due to competition from natural gas and renewables, as well as the economic shock of the pandemic. Production last year was at its lowest in nearly 60 years. Regulations on power plants and other climate policies proposed by the Biden administration could hasten the decline. 

But coal’s leaders are planning for a fight. Industry publications show their strategy includes leveraging connections on Capitol Hill to slow down the transition from fossil fuels, publishing research claiming carbon dioxide is good for humankind, and activating a “grassroots” movement—Friends of Coal—that can help coal-supporting Republicans regain power. 

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“This is not the time to waive the white flag,” said Coal Zoom.

These actions are unlikely to revive the coal industry. The financial institution Morgan Stanley in early February predicted that coal’s share of U.S. energy generation could be 0 percent in 2033—at which point it will have been completely replaced by renewables.

“It’s not looking real good for the coal industry,” Stan Kaplan, a long-time energy expert and former senior manager in the U.S. Department of Energy, told VICE News. “What you do in a situation like this, is that you seek to get whatever cash you can out of the business, and you try to preserve whatever value you can.”

That goal is made easier with the unwavering support of Republicans. West Virginia Rep. David McKinley recently explained to coal leaders that the best way to keep their industry on life-support is through bipartisan legislation advertised as boosting clean energy. 

“How can Republicans support fossil fuels in this toxic political environment?” McKinley told a mid-January conference organized by West Virginia Coal Association. “We're going to need to build coalitions with moderate Democrats and educate the public on the shortcomings of renewables.” 

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A bipartisan bill McKinley introduced last year would fund research into wind, solar, and other alternatives to coal, while weakening Biden’s target of eliminating 100 percent of emissions from the economy by 2050 to an 80 percent reduction.

“Clean energy technologies are simply not ready for widespread use across the country,” McKinley said in a statement to VICE News. “Until issues like that are resolved, we’ll need to maintain our fossil fuel fleet to ensure a reliable and operational grid.”

Powerful Democrats such as Joe Manchin agree. “Bipartisanship, guys, I have to tell you, that has to be the new normal,” the West Virginia senator and chairman of the Energy and Natural Resource Committee told the January coal conference. “You can't have a cleaner environment by eliminating fossil fuels,” he added.

Meanwhile, the coal industry is trying to convince people they don’t need to worry about carbon emissions. Coal Zoom last month published several papers making the misleading claim that greenhouse gases are good for the environment because they promote plant growth. 

The materials were produced as part of a campaign called “Saving U.S. Coal,” whose goal is to stop “false CO2/climate apocalypse scare stories as advanced by the UN” and Democratic politicians. The campaign is a partnership between Coal Zoom and the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide, an organization that has attacked the scientific consensus on global temperature rise for more than two decades and has received funding and support from the coal producers Murray Energy and Peabody Energy, as well as the pro-Trump billionaire Robert Mercer. (The Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide didn’t respond to a request for comment.) 

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Giving platforms to fringe scientific theories like this is a delay tactic, said Kert Davies, the founder and director of the Climate Investigations Center, which tracks denial campaigns. “It causes noise in the system to doubt the science around climate change,” he said. “Any doubt of the urgency of climate change slows down the gears of the policy machine.” 

Davies said that spreading misinformation about renewables can achieve a similar outcome. When the Texas storm first hit, Friends of Coal claimed on Facebook that “13,000 taxpayer subsidized windmills have become nothing more than prominent eyesores in Texas.” In reality, wind has overtaken coal as the second largest source of energy in Texas after gas. Wind turbines supplied 23 percent of the state’s energy last year. 

Friends of Coal was set up by industry groups in 2008 to fight against Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan and other policies that would make the electric grid greener. By sponsoring car shows, football games and other community events, it was able to convince many people across coal-producing regions that they were victims of a “War on Coal.” 

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Appealing to coal miners was a big part of Donald Trump’s 2016 election strategy. Despite West Virginia experiencing its worst coal mining job losses in 60 years and a rapidly growing renewables industry that could create thousands of new jobs there, the state still voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2020. “Even if I don’t go back to this industry, I’m still with him,” one laid-off coal mine electrician said at the time

Now with Biden in charge, a prominent coal leader says people “must band together and do everything imaginable” to fight against the forces “plotting the demise of our industry.”

“Given the obvious rough waters ahead and challenges that will be coming out of Washington of proportions we have not seen, we must act now, today, to demonstrate the value and critical nature of our business to policymakers everywhere,” Chris Hamilton, president of West Virginia Coal Association, explained in an open letter in December. 

“We are asking all coal economy stakeholders to begin contacting your local, county, state, and congressional representative to express concern over the potential loss of your job and what you believe is about to happen going forward,” Hamilton wrote. He didn’t respond to an interview request. 

Prolonging the use of coal could have devastating consequences. If the U.S. doesn’t cut its emissions in half within the next nine years, the best-case scenario of stabilizing global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees C would be impossible, locking in warming that could damage food and water supplies for hundreds of millions of people. 

“We’re in a race against the clock and we’re already behind schedule,” Adam Wells, a Virginia-based regional director with the environmental organization Appalachian Voices, told VICE News. “A year or six months (delay) could make a huge difference.” 

Follow Geoff Dembicki on Twitter.