By Peter Galuszka

This isn’t exactly breaking news, but coal companies and utilities pay to be a dominant force in Virginia politics, a trio of environmental groups charges as The Governor’s Conference on Energy opens in Richmond today.

The three groups – Appalachian Voices, Sierra Club Virginia and Chesapeake Climate Action Network – note that Dominion Virginia Power has been the largest political contributor in the state aside from the Democratic and Republican Parties. Since 2004, it has given $5.2 million to political candidates. All utilities gave $9 million for the period and coal firms gave $8 million.

Virginia’s largest coal firm, Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, favors Republicans by far and has given $205,000 to Gov. Bob McDonnell. Consol, based near Pittsburgh, jacked up its Virginia political contributions from about $100,000 in 2009 to $350,000 in 2011 to help pave the way for a law to allow coal firms to dump waste into abandoned mines underneath a surface property owner’s land without permission, according to the report.

On the face of it, the fact that Big Power and Big Coal give away lots of political money is hardly news. On the national level, coal firm contributions are increasing. They have their giving from about $3.5 million in 2008 to $8.7 million this year into August, according to a Time magazine assessment of data. Such donations are critical as the coal industry tries what fight off what it claims are excessive regulations by the Obama Administration.

The reality is that coal is facing major problems for other reasons. For one, an extraordinarily mild winter left large utility stocks unused. Natural gas has been kicking coal around since fracking has made it easier and cheaper to drill and sell. The U.S. economy still hasn’t grown much since the last recession.  Coal operators such as Alpha had been intending to use their exports of metallurgical coal to make up for the slack domestic thermal coal market, but met exports have slowed as Asian economies have cooled their red hot growth rates.

Alpha has been taking a beating. In the second quarter, it lost $2 billion and has announced the layoffs of 1,200 miners. Much of this is a restructuring and rationalization more than a year after it gobbled up troubled, Richmond-based mine giant Massey Energy.

The environmentalists’ report actually reveals some countervailing trends that they may not have intended. Alpha gave away $291,728 in 2011 to politicians but so far has given $234,464. I’m not certain how far the data goes, but it very well could be that Alpha may be giving less because it is taking such a financial drubbing. Ditto, Consol gave a whopping $340,754 away in 2011 but this year only $69,694. It faces the same bad economics that Alpha does, but it could be that Consol is becoming stingy now that it has the underground waste law it wants.

The report also repeats past complaints that Alpha twisted around routing of the Virginia share of the 116-mile Coalfield Expressway in West Virginia and Southwest Virginia. Normally, says Tom Cormons of Appalachian Voices and a report author, roads follow valleys because it is easier and cheaper to build this way. But Alpha kicked in with a “coal synergy” idea in the usual “Public Private Partnership” mode that Richmond’s politicians love so well.

The expressway now will go over tops of mountains to better access coal seams. According to Cormons,  Alpha will be able to get to coal on land condemned by the state for the road. Alpha will get to mine the coal and presumably sell and profit it as well, although Cormons wasn’t entirely certain where proceeds from the sale of such coal would go.

One other political ploy by Alpha on the federal level is to blunt the Robert C. Byrd mine act that would take corrective steps after Massey Energy’s safety laxity contributed to a massive explosion in 2010 at its Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners, the most in 40 years.

The new law, blunted by House of Representative Republicans, would protect miners who warn of safety dangers and would allow federal regulators to have subpoena power in their safety probes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has such power when it looks into fraudulent milk sales, but the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which is supposed to protect human life, does not. Big Coal wants to keep it that way.

The three green groups plan to demonstrate Wednesday afternoon at the Governor’s Energy Conference which tends to be rather heavy on fossil fuel exhibitions and presentations. McDonnell’s dream is to make Virginia the “Energy Capital of the East Coast.”

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