Is King Coal Finally Throwing In the Towel?

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Things have been pretty rough for the coal industry lately, and the tough times have exacted a toll on a surprising aspect of the business: lobbying.

In 2012, the mining industry -- largely consisting of coal companies, but not exclusively -- spent $32.5 million on lobbying. Year to date, that number is way down, totaling a mere $18.5 million through the third quarter. It's a bit surprising given the level of activity in Washington aimed squarely at the coal industry, so let's take a closer look.

Big spenders
There are no real surprises on the list of top-spending coal companies: Peabody Energy , CONSOL Energy , Alpha Natural Resources , Arch Coal , and Rio Tinto are the big players, and they're the biggest publicly traded spenders as well. Still, they aren't spending nearly as much as they have in the past, even as recently as last year:

Company

2012 Spend

YTD

Difference

Peabody Energy

$5.50

$2.56

(53%)

CONSOL Energy

$3.94

$2.18

(45%)

Alpha Natural Resources

$2.65

$0.82

(69%)

Arch Coal

$1.81

$0.82

(55%)

Rio Tinto

$1.10

$0.55

(50%)


Source: Opensecrets.org. Dollar figures in millions.

Obviously, comparing four quarters in one year to three in the next is going to show some disparity, but the gap remains significant. In most cases, these companies would have to double what they've spent this year to come close to matching last year's number.

Throwing in the towel
You can blame a do-nothing Congress or battered balance sheets for the decline in lobbying spending, but there is one other factor that is likely a major culprit: It's not working.

According to a National Journal report, the industry quadrupled its campaign contributions from 2008 to 2012, as the coal advocacy group American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity spent around $40 million on advertising campaigns each year. Peabody Energy alone threw more than $33 million at lobbying over that time period, all in the hopes of exerting influence in Washington.

Yet here we are.

It's not that no one is using coal at all. It's rather that its dominance is collapsing, and future growth for the industry is very much in doubt. In addition to the extremely tight regulations on new-build coal plants that the Environmental Protection Agency announced recently, the demand for coal is plummeting in the U.S. as natural gas and renewables claim a larger slice of the pie.

For example, though coal is still the dominant fuel source for electricity in the mid-Atlantic region, its share of generation has fallen from roughly 60% in 2001, to roughly 40% in 2013. In the central region, coal was responsible for 80% of electricity generation in 2001, and that number has dropped to roughly 65% today. In the Southeast, coal contributes less than 40% of power generation, falling close to 20 percentage points from 2001.

In other words, despite a massive injection of lobbying dollars over the past five years, the coal industry has very little to show for it. Some of this, like natural gas prices, is beyond its control, while some of it -- presumably, EPA regulations -- is what lobbying is all about.

Bottom line
The biggest difference between an environmental advocate predicting the end of coal and plummeting lobbying dollars predicting the end of coal is that lobbying comes from within the industry. It may well be an admission of defeat, the signal in the noise, the bell finally tolling for King Coal.

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The article Is King Coal Finally Throwing In the Towel? originally appeared on Fool.com.

Fool contributor Aimee Duffy and The Motley Fool have no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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