CHICAGO/WASHINGTON, Oct 27 (Reuters Breakingviews) – Shale gas could blow up U.S. politics. It is already playing a big part in the upcoming midterm elections. Coal’s downfall is an important issue in one race that could swing the Senate Republican. Fracking-related jobs and manufacturing could rock future votes.
The seat being vacated by Jay Rockefeller in West Virginia is a prime example of how the shifting carbon landscape is reverberating at the ballot box. GOP challenger Shelley Moore Capito has built a big lead over Democrat Natalie Tennant in part by tying her to President Barack Obama’s energy and environmental policies, which favor gas over coal. It could turn out to be a decisive congressional referendum for the next two years.
Proposed rules that crack down on greenhouse emissions are certainly bad news for the smog-inducing fuel. The so-called “war on coal,” however, only amounts to a final dagger for an industry felled by broader market forces.
Booming supplies of cheap gas, extracted using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, are mainly to blame for an 18 percent decline in U.S. coal consumption between 2008 and 2013. Ultra-low gas prices also prompted electric utilities to replace coal long before Obama’s new rules came about. Demand for coal used in steel manufacturing also has slumped, thanks to an industrial slowdown in China.
For a while, U.S. producers offset the pain by shipping excess supplies abroad. Total exports have fallen by more than a third since 2012, according to the Energy Information Administration. More efficient operators in Indonesia and Australia have been stealing business from U.S. rivals, which need to charge higher prices for their older, picked-over mines to turn a profit.
Shale’s combustible effect on U.S. politics probably will extend beyond this year’s Senate race, too. Booming petroleum production is already affecting geopolitics by curbing U.S. reliance on Middle Eastern crude. A flood of fracking-related jobs and lower energy costs also may reshape debates by boosting employment in shale-rich states and revitalizing domestic manufacturing.
As with coal, such developments have more to do with capitalist tendencies than policy ones. Such facts, though, rarely get in the way of a good election campaign story.
– In the U.S. Senate race in West Virginia, Republican Shelley Moore Capito has opened an average 17-point lead over Democratic challenger Natalie Tennant, according to Real Clear Politics polling data on Oct. 23.
– One of Capito’s ads states: “When Obama declared his war on coal, Natalie Tennant not only defended him but endorsed him for president – twice.” The ad goes on to allege that Tennant’s campaign is being “heavily financed by some of the most radical anti-coal people in the country.”
– U.S. coal production fell to 983,000 short tons in 2013 from about 1.2 billion in 2008, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
– Real Clear Politics poll data: http://bit.ly/1slS23b
– Capito ad: http://bit.ly/1snDul1
Sands of time
– For previous columns by the authors, Reuters customers can click on and (On Twitter https://twitter.com/KevinAllison; https://twitter.com/indiviglio. Editing by Jeffrey Goldfarb and Martin Langfield)