Two Years After Mine Disaster, Coal Lobby Is Still Growing

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OpenSecrets Blog

Two Years After Mine Disaster, Coal Lobby Is Still Growing

Two years ago today, the Upper Big Branch mine exploded, killing 29 miners and injuring two others. In the months after the tragedy, it became clear that the mine's owner, Massey Energy, had flouted safety requirements and tried to game the system. Led by CEO Don Blankenship, the company unapologetically pursued politicians at both the state and federal levels, dumping cash into campaigns and lobbying hard for less oversight.

Investigations into the disaster found that the company had successfully skirted orders to improve the safety of the mine, despite fines and warnings from regulators. In 2010, Blankenship resigned, and a few months later the company was sold to Alpha Natural Resources.  

But the departure of the pugnacious coal executive, eager to use his money to influence power, hasn't lessened the industry's investment in Washington. In fact, OpenSecrets.org data shows that the amount of money spent by the coal industry on politicians and lobbying has only grown since the disaster.

In 2011, the industry spent at least $18.1 million lobbying on the federal level - millions more than the $14.9 million in 2009. That figure includes all types of companies with interests in coal, but the mining companies spend far and away the most money on lobbying -- companies like Peabody Energy, which spent $4.9 million last year, and CONSOL Energy, which spent $3.2 million. Massey's corporate successor, Alpha Natural Resources spent just over $1 million. Safety issues and mine oversight was an issue of concern listed on lobbying disclosure forms for all three companies. 

To put that in perspective, the United Mine Workers, the largest miner's union, spent just $404,419 lobbying last year.

The industry's figures overall are slightly down compared to 2010, but are significantly higher than before the accident. Although there is evidence that mine safety has improved since the explosion, Congress has failed to pass any legislation addressing it. The correlation between lobbying expenditures and legislation, or lack thereof, is never clear -- but it's clear where campaign contributions go and who's pushing or resisting new legislation.

As a recent hearing on efforts by the Mine Health and Safety Administration (the agency responsible for overseeing mine safety) showed, Democrats are the ones pushing for new laws. And the industry has given far more money to Republicans -- about $3 million to Republicans and just $385,486 to Democrats.

The OpenSecrets.org analysis of contributions by the industry also shows that overall giving to candidates is on the rise. In the 2010 campaign cycle, individuals and PACs affiliated with the industry gave far more than ever before -- $8.1 million. That is more than double than the previous high-water mark in the 2002 cycle, when when individuals and PACs affiliated with the industry gave $3.7 million. And so far this cycle, with much of this year including the general election still to come, the industry has given $4.8 million, putting it on pace to possibly surpass last cycle. 

Mine safety and the aftermath of Upper Big Branch is hardly the only major issue confronting the mining industry and causing them to spend money in Washington, to be fair: climate change and the role of coal-fired power plants in the nation's energy future are huge fights in Washington. Just yesterday, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity launched a major new ad campaign to push coal-fired plants back to prominence in the discussion over domestic power sources.

Russ Choma

Russ Choma is the money-in-politics reporter for the Center for Responsive Politics. Russ has a background in investigative journalism, having worked as a reporter for the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, and he spent five years as a newspaper reporter in New Hampshire.

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