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Thursday, August 20, 2015 2:09 PM ET
Coal supporters see hope for industry resurgence with Republican in White House
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A resurgence of the U.S. coal market after a sustained downturn over the last five years will depend on a Republican victory in next year's presidential election, according to Steve Forbes, the chairman and editor-in-chief of Forbes Media.

In comments to West Virginia media this week, Forbes promised a recovery of the country's coal industry, which has struggled under the weight of regulatory and market pressures since 2011, though only if a Republican can win the White House in 2016.

"Coal is coming back," Forbes said. "What's going to happen in the next few years, especially when we get a new president, is that the economy is going to start to revive again. We're going to start to do sensible things overseas, so you get the global economy starting to move up again."

Forbes' comments echo those made during a recent American Coal Council conference in Park City, Utah, where former special adviser to the office of the executive chairman of Peabody Energy Corp., Fred Palmer, began his presentation with a Hillary Clinton campaign ad promising significant solar investment if she wins the presidency. The footage, Palmer explained, showed where the Democrats' priorities lay.

Forbes suggested that new leadership in the executive branch would allow a roll-back of those policies often cited by the coal industry as being especially detrimental to the sector's wellbeing and long–term stability.

"They destroyed the coal industry and they're determined to destroy gas and oil as well," Forbes said in reference to the introduction of the U.S. EPA's Clean Power Plan, or CPP, and recent action on methane emissions.

Industry advocates praised Forbes' comments, but cautioned against placing too much emphasis on one election.

"First of all, a 'coal resurgence' will require a global 'economic resurgence', i.e. growth closer to the recent trend, that no president in either party can engineer," National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich told SNL Energy. "It's important to state this obvious point so expectations can be realistic in the campaign season."

However, while Forbes might be "overstating the point," Popovich said that "he's focused on the larger truth: so long as either party's energy policies are outsourced to … or held hostage by … environmental activists we will not see an improvement in the fossil energy market and the economy that relies on fossil energy no matter what the rebound in economic growth here or in the world may be."

Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association also warned against relying too heavily on the outcome of the presidential election for an industry turnaround, but told SNL Energy it was a step in the right direction.

"I think it's definitely a factor for us to have someone in the White House who doesn't look at our product the way this president does," Bissett told SNL Energy, adding that Republican party leadership has vocalized the importance of winning next November.

"Speaker [Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.] has been very clear with us that he can slow or stop the administration's policies," Bissett said. "But he can't change direction without the White House."

Christian Palich, president of the Ohio Coal Association also offered support for Forbes' assessment of the race.

"Unfortunately, Mr. Forbes makes a valid point," Palich told SNL Energy. "Coal families and energy consumers should never be used as a partisan football. President Obama, Harry Reid, radical environmentalists, and billionaire campaign donors like Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, however have made being anti-coal a litmus test for support."

But is the GOP listening?

Despite Forbes suggestion that a return of the country's coal sector requires a GOP win in November 2016, the party has shown little direct interest in making the industry a central part of their campaigns. With the early campaign driven by issues like immigration and the economy, even broader energy issues have been absent from the debate.

An SNL Energy survey of GOP candidate websites showed little to no mention of coal or energy issues as a whole outside of calls for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and greater energy independence, though these focused primarily on oil and natural gas production.

Some candidates have offered broad criticism for the current administration's 'war on coal' in speeches and on social media.

"There is no industry that the Obama administration has raged a relentless war against than the coal industry," Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in a speech in Wyoming. "Obama's policies have resulted in massive layoffs of coal miners and families of miners that depend on the coal industry that have simply been ravaged by this administrations zealous assault and war on coal."

However, for now, the clearest entry for coal into the 2016 presidential election has been through challenges to the EPA's CPP. As governors, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker head states that have previously mounted legal challenges to the plan and have indicated that they will again after the CPP is officially published in the U.S. Federal Register.

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey has not signaled any interest in joining the EPA legal challenge.

Other candidates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Cruz have the deepest financial ties to the coal industry. A Super PAC supporting Bush received a $1 million contribution from Chris Cline, chairman and principal owner of Foresight Reserves LP, while Cruz's campaign has received $10,000 from Murray Energy Corp.'s political action committee in 2015, according to the U.S. Federal Election Commission.

Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, a political analysis website at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, told SNL Energy that the lack of coal focus in the early stages of the election could have to do with the primary calendar. Few of the largest producing states have primaries scheduled early in the year, meaning candidates are more likely focusing on more localized issues, Kondik told SNL Energy, calling coal a "niche industry" at this point in the campaign.

"For coal to become an issue, there would have to be some sort of crisis," Kondik said, suggesting that significant changes in electricity or gas prices could be factors to force the issue.

Palich, who hails from a state early on the primary calendar, disagreed, telling SNL Energy that he expects coal to play a large role in the election moving forward.

"We do expect for coal and energy to play a major role in the 2016 election because of how the president's policies have received major opposition from several important swing states, including Ohio," Palich said. "As the effects of Mr. Obama's disastrous regulations against coal continue to be felt, families and businesses across the nation will demand to know where candidates stand on energy."

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