July 28, 2010 -- Top officials at the country's major coal companies, including Massey Energy, owner of the West Virginia mine where 29 died earlier this year, apparently want to take advantage of looser campaign finance laws and use corporate money to defeat political candidates they believe to be "anti-coal."
According to an email from Roger Nicholson, senior vice president of the International Coal Group, "a number of coal industry representatives recently have been considering developing a 527 entity with the purpose of attempting to defeat anti-coal incumbents."
Nicholson's email notes that a recent Supreme Court decision will allow the "voices" of the coal firms "to be heard." The Court ruled earlier this January in Citizens United v. FEC that corporations and labor unions can spend unlimited funds on elections.
The email mentions incumbent Democratic Congressmen Ben Chandler of Kentucky and Nick Rahall of West Virginia, as well as Democratic Senate candidate Jack Conway in Kentucky. It says that four coal companies have already had "theoretical" discussions about such an effort and would like to proceed in developing an action plan," naming ICG, Alliance Resource Partners, Natural Resource Partners, and Massey Energy, and asks recipients of the email to contact him if they're interested in participating.
Massey Energy owns the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, site of the April 5 explosion that took 29 lives, while ICG owned the Sago mine, also in West Virginia, where 12 died four years ago. The incidents have caused Congress to take a closer look at mine safety.
Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has already excited controversy via his own involvement in West Virginia state elections. He spent millions of his own money in a successful attempt to defeat a sitting state supreme court justice. The justice who Blankenship supported later ruled in Massey's favor, as did another justice, Spike Maynard, who had vacationed on the Riviera with Blankenship while the case was pending before the court. Maynard is now running for the House seat of Nick Rahall – one of the incumbent Democrats the new coal 527 would target.
In an email to ABC News, Roger Nicholson defended the solicitation he sent to other coal execs. "My letter stated the obvious," said Nicholson. "There are those of us in the coal industry who are clearly concerned about the attack on the coal industry, and by extension, the jobs of each and every one of those workers, directly and indirectly, employed by the coal industry."
"The Obama administration, through the EPA, and the Congress controlled by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, are taking steps that seek ultimately to eliminate coal production and its use. We believe that these goals are disastrous for Kentucky and West Virginia."
Tony Oppegard, a Kentucky lawyer and mine safety advocate, said he was concerned about the effect of the coal industry's deep pockets. "The coal industry's got a lot of money. It could potentially be very influential in an election."
Oppegard said he thought that incumbents like Ben Chandler were being targeted because of their work for mine safety. "The coal industry considers him to be anti coal. Why? Apparently one of the reasons is that he's cosponsoring legislation that would strengthen the mine-safety law."
Nicholson said the coal industry is not opposed to safety regulations. "Our primary focus is on protecting a core job-producing industry from destruction through overzealous and unproductive environmental regulation. . . . The notion that mine safety is not important to the industry is absurd."
Nicholson's email to other coal execs suggests that the upcoming West Virginia Coal Association meeting in early August would be a good time to do some political planning, and figure out whether there are any other candidates the industry should target.
Don Blankenship did not respond to a request for comment.