In 2012, GOP presidential candidates accused President Obama of waging a war on the coal industry.
Three years later, coal is largely taking a back seat in the Republican race for the White House.
A number of factors could explain the shift.
Talking about coal isn’t the best way to appeal to younger voters, say some experts. And while coal is a dominant issue in some states, it’s not seen as a national issue.
Philip Wallach, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said fiery rhetoric on coal may not
resonate outside of coal country.
“It seems that just intoning ‘war on coal’ is only good politics in Appalachia — and a few other places like Wyoming — and Republican politicians still use that language there, but they probably feel they have little to gain by framing things in those terms at the national level,” Wallach said.
A number of candidates are calling for the allowance of more oil and natural gas production through advanced methods like hydraulic fracturing. Wallach argued that such an emphasis makes sense in 2015.
“Supporting fracking and natural gas more broadly seems like a more up-to-date energy message likely to brand them as future-oriented Republicans; with gas as cheap as it is now, focusing on coal too much seems like fighting the last war,” he said.
Jeb Bush had made rolling back regulations on fracking a big part of his message on energy.
“Some new rules, such as overwriting state and tribal standards for hydraulic fracturing operations, directly discourage investment in domestic oil and gas operations,” the former Florida governor says in his energy plan.
“Washington should generally defer to the will of states and tribes,” the plan says. “Their citizens and leaders are best able to weigh the benefits and costs of oil and gas development.”
Supporters of the coal industry aren’t happy to be taking a back seat to oil and natural gas.
Multiple coal mining companies recently have declared bankruptcy, and related companies are suffering, costing thousands of jobs. The industry blames the job losses squarely on Obama, though factors such as natural gas competition and efficiency are also a part of the industry’s problem.
“Politically, I’m shocked that the Republicans are not using this issue, because it affects hundreds of thousands of families throughout Kentucky, Pennsylvania and other states,” said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council. “So it’s not just an energy story, it’s a livelihood and economic survival story, and it’s ignored.”
Cohen said Republican candidates are facing a choice, “between sitting with the hip crowd, with the smart kids, and talking about climate change in a Republican way with market rhetoric; and helping regular folks to survive economically.”
Several candidates for the White House race toss coal in with other fuel sources, and offer no industry-specific proposals for coal.
“Rather than distort the market, the government should instead promote competition,” says the plan from Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioRepublicans play clean up on Trump's foreign policy Top Dem: GOP is terrified of Trump McConnell on Trump: 'I'm not a fan of the daily tweets' MORE. “Policies that expand access to oil, gas, and coal development can also expand access to the development of wind, solar, nuclear, and hydropower energy.”
“We should explore and exploit all forms of domestically produced energy — oil, gas, wind, solar, bio-fuels, hydro-electric, nuclear, coal — anything and everything,” says a fact sheet from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Rand PaulRand PaulTrump’s feud with the press in the spotlight Rand Paul: We’re very lucky John McCain’s not in charge Rand Paul: John Bolton would be a 'bad choice' for national security adviser MORE stands out slightly with his support of an industry key to his home state of Kentucky.
“It would be a mistake to shut down all of our industries in the coal fields, and shut down the coal power plants,” the senator said in the Nov. 10 GOP debate on Fox Business.
Daniel J. Weiss, senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters, noted that each Republican candidate opposes Obama’s new anti-climate change rules for power plants. That means that they want more coal-fired electricity generation.
“All of them want to continue and expand the use of coal as an electricity source, despite its impact on both local pollution and climate change,” he said.
The coal industry is happy to hear talk about rolling back regulations.
“You’ve got every single one of the presidential candidates but three who have taken a position on the Clean Power Plan, and where they fall on this rule, and whether it should be rolled back or we should stay the course,” said Laura Sheehan, spokeswoman for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. The three outliers are businessman Donald TrumpDonald TrumpChelsea Clinton attends Muslim solidarity rally in NYC Pentagon chief: 'I don’t have any issues with the press' Kasich: The media is 'an important part of democracy' MORE, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamTrump’s feud with the press in the spotlight Senators eye new sanctions against Iran Republicans play clean up on Trump's foreign policy MORE (S.C.) and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.
Weiss predicted that talk of a war on coal will return in the fall — when the GOP nominee takes on a Democrat.