With just two terms in Congress, Republican Rep. Andy Barr has become one of the biggest recipients of coal industry support on Capitol Hill, rivaling or exceeding the amounts collected by his more senior Kentucky colleagues.
Barr is not on any committees that set policies related to coal, and there is little mining activity in his district. Of the 30 bills he’s introduced since his election to Congress in 2012, none was coal-related.
Yet coal mining interests have invested $435,000 in his campaign committee and political action committee since his first run for Congress in 2010, making the sector his top supporter.
Barr, a lawyer from Lexington, is the fifth-leading recipient on Capitol Hill of campaign support from coal industry executives and their political action committees, according to an analysis of federal election data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group that tracks Washington influence.
For the 2016 election cycle, Barr tops all of his House of Representatives and Senate colleagues in coal industry contributions, with almost $44,000 as of the end of September.
The contributions put Barr in a league with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and even outpace veteran Republican Rep. Hal Rogers, who has represented eastern Kentucky’s coalfield since 1980.
The state’s most prolific coal-producing county is Union, in the western district of Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Republican first elected in 1994. Yet Barr’s support from the coal industry also exceeds Whitfield’s, who’s the chairman of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Power.
Kentucky is the nation’s third-leading coal producer, behind Wyoming and West Virginia, but the boom years are long past. According to a 2014 report by the state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet, Kentucky coal production is down 55 percent from its 1990 peak. Coal industry employment levels statewide are at their lowest since the 1920s.
Coal has been an issue in all of Barr’s campaigns since he unsuccessfully challenged then-Rep. Ben Chandler, a Democrat, in 2010. Barr unseated Chandler in 2012 and won re-election last year. Coal industry employees and political action committees have given generously to those efforts.
“Congressman Barr is a strong proponent of coal because of its importance to Kentucky and the district,” said Rick VanMeter, a Barr spokesman. “He’s proud to have the support of individuals who work in the coal industry.”
However, political contributions don’t necessarily have to translate to policy outcomes. Rather, those who give may just be looking for someone who can be their voice.
“They don’t give money to people who are on the fence,” said Stephen Voss, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky. “They give money to people who already support them.”
Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said Barr had demonstrated his support for coal in other ways. For example, Bissett said Barr had arranged a meeting two years ago between Kentucky coal officials and the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington on water permits that were affecting the industry.
Barr not only facilitated the meeting, he also participated in it.
“He had a tremendous knowledge of the issues we’re dealing with,” Bissett said.
Voss said coal had an emotional resonance, as well as an economic one, beyond the regions where it was produced. About 90 percent of Kentucky’s electricity comes from coal, and it powers a manufacturing base in Barr’s district that sustains the state’s economy.
“He actually won his first seat pushing the coal issue,” Voss said.
The abundance of cheap natural gas and a slump in demand for electric power are largely to blame for coal’s decline, but the energy policies of President Barack Obama haven’t helped it, either.
“There’s a real disconnect between a lot of Kentuckians and the White House,” Bissett said. “Coal is emblematic of that.”
Obama’s Clean Power Plan looks to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. Much of that reduction can be achieved by closing coal-fired power plants.
Coal and natural gas each generated 35 percent of the country’s electricity in July, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, but the decline in coal’s share is expected to continue.
Of the 523 U.S. coal plants in operation five years ago, 200, or about 40 percent, have already shut down, according to the Sierra Club.
Two of the coal companies that rank among Barr’s biggest contributors, Patriot Coal and Alpha Natural Resources, both filed for bankruptcy protection this year.
The state’s senior leaders, including McConnell and Rogers, are backing an economic development initiative that seeks to wean eastern Kentucky from its dependence on coal.
Regardless of party, elected officials in Kentucky must walk a fine line on coal, Voss said. They might acknowledge the need to address coal’s decline, but they can’t appear to be supporting or accelerating the destruction of a way of life.
“If you say it,” Voss said, “it sounds like you’re endorsing it.”
Top 10 recipients in Congress of campaign contributions from the coal industry since 1990.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., $837,950
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., $608,144
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., $497,248
Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va,. $435,929
Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky., $435,033
Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., $387,024
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., $263,157
Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., $218,215
Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., $213,164
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., $195,500
Source: Center for Responsive Politics
Contributions to Andy Barr from coal company employees and political action committees since 2010.
Alliance Resource Partners: $116,275
Arch Coal: $31,750
Patriot Coal: $29,300
Murray Energy: $25,650
Pine Branch Coal Sales: $24,900
Alpha Natural Resources: $24,648
Source: Center for Responsive Politics