The message was brutally simple.
“We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” Hillary Clinton, front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, recently told a CNN town hall meeting in Ohio.
For Clinton, it was yet another effort to placate far-left environmental activists, who clearly favor her opponent in the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders. He has thrilled the activists by enthusiastically embracing their five-word energy and environmental plan: Keep it in the ground.
Clinton’s energy plan includes a $30 billion promise “to bring economic opportunity, using clean renewable energy as the key, into coal country.” But even so, catering to the environmental fringe still perplexes some Clinton supporters.
“That was a dumb way to put it,” former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank (D) said in response to Clinton’s remarks on the coal industry. More to the point, the public does not have the “confidence in government” to believe in Clinton’s $30 billion plan, and “the likelihood that 58-year-old coal miners are going to become the solar engineers of the future is nil,” Frank said on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher.
How things have changed.
During the 2008 campaign, Democrats portrayed themselves as pro-mining. Even President Obama, who won the primary by running to Clinton’s left, painted a rosy picture for coal miners and coal companies. “You can’t tell me [that] we can’t figure out how to burn coal we mine right here in the United States of America,” Obama the candidate told a rally in southwestern Virginia, where he promised federal support for “clean coal” technology.
His running mate, Joe Biden, even boasted to mine workers that America has enough coal to last “the better part of the next hundred to 200 years.” The future vice president almost gave the game away when he was caught on tape declaring: “No coal plants here in America.” But the Obama-Biden ticket was saved when Republican nominee John McCain made an even bigger mistake – touting the strength of the U.S. economy on the same day it started to crash.
Once in office, Obama and Biden dropped the pretense and pushed Congress to pass “cap-and-trade” climate legislation. The legislation would have devastated the energy and mining sectors, hurt U.S. manufacturers, and hit low-income families especially hard. But enough Democrats from impacted states pushed back to defeat cap-and-trade. In short, the blue-collar faction of the Democratic Party beat the environmental faction, with help from Republicans in Congress.
After this humiliating defeat, environmental groups and environmental donors went back to the drawing board, and adopted a much more aggressive strain of political activism. The best example was their campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline, which completely turned the tables on the blue-collar wing of the Democratic Party after the president’s reelection in 2012.
When Obama blocked the project late last year, he did so over the heated objections of labor leaders. The president threw “hard-working, blue-collar workers under the bus” in order to please “green-collar elitists,” Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers International Union of North America, said after the decision.
Likewise, environmental activists got a much better deal than labor leaders under the so-called Clean Power Plan (CPP), an executive-branch replacement for the failed cap-and-trade bill. Some unions even joined the lawsuit brought by 27 states which resulted in a rare Supreme Court stay of the CPP until its legality is determined. “Without reliable electricity, our economy simply stops,” the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers said when it joined the lawsuit. “[The CPP] won’t work, it isn’t fair, and we don’t think it is legal.”
To many observers, Obama’s decisions on Keystone XL and the CPP have a straightforward explanation. He is, after all, a lame-duck president with strong environmental views, and he wants to lock in a “climate legacy” before leaving office. But is there more to the story? Is a structural change happening inside the Democratic coalition that gives environmental activists more influence than organized labor?
It’s certainly possible, based on recent developments from the campaign trail. Under pressure from environmental groups, Clinton has taken a much harder line on energy. “I’m going to pledge to stop fossil fuels,” she said when confronted by an activist. In a separate encounter, an activist asked if she would ban oil, natural gas and coal development on federal lands. “That’s a done deal,” Clinton replied.
Later, at a Democratic debate, Clinton promised new restrictions on the oil and natural gas production made possible by hydraulic fracturing. “By the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place,” she said.
True, Clinton has tried to walk back some of her attacks on fossil fuels, perhaps because they hurt her chances of winning the general election. Her comments about coal miners and coal companies were “mistaken,” and she was really referring to the “recent wave of bankruptcies as a result of a changing energy market,” Clinton said in a follow-up letter to a coal-state senator. As for fracking, Clinton later issued a statement opposing calls to “end natural gas production,” which would put “ideology ahead of science.”
But damage control only goes so far. It doesn’t change the fact that Clinton is feeling pressure from environmental activists. And for companies and workers in the natural resources sector, there are other statements of concern from the Clinton campaign.
For example, Clinton recently praised the Obama administration for trying to block future mining activity in parts of southwestern Alaska. It was a highly controversial case because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) didn’t wait for formal permit applications from mine developers. Instead, the EPA guessed what the miners would build, guessed it would be bad, and moved in unilaterally.
“Apparently EPA sees no limit on its powers,” Hal Quinn, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, said at the time. Since then, a federal judge has halted the EPA’s action, pending a lawsuit that alleges collusion between the agency and major environmental groups to ban copper, gold and molybdenum production in the region.
The case has implications far beyond Alaska, because the EPA’s tool of choice was the Clean Water Act. This is the same law the Obama administration has dramatically redefined under the so-called “Waters of the United States” rulemaking. In effect, the EPA is trying to “assert federal control over waters that are currently under the sole jurisdiction of the states, including roadside ditches, stormwater control basins and ponds,” according to the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), a group that represents the construction industry.
The waters rule would force all manner of construction projects to obtain costly federal permits, assuming those permits aren’t blocked by the EPA and environmental activist groups. “This will substantially impact job creation, economic investment, and growth,” the AGC warns. Once again, the judicial branch has halted the implementation of the new rule until the courts decide whether the EPA acted legally.
If there is a new pecking order in the Democratic coalition, one which benefits environmental activists at the expense of organized labor, we may not know for sure until after the election. In the meantime, anyone who cares about energy and environmental policy should be watching Clinton’s campaign extra closely. She could be the proverbial canary in the coal mine.
Simon Lomax is an associate energy policy analyst with the Independence Institute and a consultant who advises pro-business groups. From 2004 to 2012, he was a news reporter covering energy and environmental policy in Washington, D.C. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.