Getting Cozy with Big Coal

Whenever I read a bit of news like this one -- that Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat from West Virginia, is co-sponsoring a bill that would keep the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions -- my first instinct is to look at who's been funding the offending politician. Since Rahall is from West Virginia, I expected to find a pile of money from Big Coal behind him. But that turned out not to be the case, exactly.

Over the course of his long career, the largest chunks of Rahall's campaign money have come from transportation, industrial, and public sector unions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Among his top five contributors are companies like UPS and Fedex. These numbers line up, to a certain extent, with the picture of his political career that Rahall wants to paint for himself: his official bio highlights his "dedicated efforts to promote the diversification of the economic base of southern West Virginia through his "three Ts" agenda (transportation, technology and tourism)."

Rahall is also a past chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, and as a rule, he has voted with the environmental community: he earned an 80% on the League of Conservation Voters' national environmental scorecard last term. Still, he is from West Virginia. Over the course of his career, he has supported mountaintop removal mining, but as the indispensable Ken Ward Jr. writes, "his position on it is certainly in conflict with his great leadership on so many other environmental and conservation measures."

So why is Rahall signing up to block one of the last avenues available for dealing with carbon emissions? He gave The Hill's Andrew Restuccia the same excuse that Republicans have been using: it's Congress' job to make these decisions. (Never mind that the Supreme Court ordered the EPA to start regulating carbon.)

But Rahall's decision could also having something to do with the last election cycle, in which he had to fight against a Massey Coal–backed challenger. Rahall won reelection with 55% of the vote, a comfortable margin, but it was one of his closest races. On the financial end, unions were still strong supporters, but this time around, Patriot Coal and Peabody Energy were among Rahall's top contributors, according to CRP. Rahall has raised smaller amounts of money from mining interests for years, but it's ramped up recently: more than half of the money he's received from the mining industry since 1989 has come in during the past two campaign cycles.

Looking at campaign finance data often ends in facing a chicken-and-egg problem: Did coal companies start donating more generously to Rahall because his views grew closer to theirs? Or did Rahall start edging closer to the coal companies' agenda because he wanted or needed their financial and political support? Ultimately, it doesn't matter, though: the end result is a mutually reinforcing relationship. Coal companies help Rahall stay in office; Rahall helps them stay in business.