Jeb Bush will convene next week with a clutch of coalmining barons and reliable Republican party donors who have paid at least $7,500 each to huddle in secret with the presidential hopeful at a golfing and fly-fishing retreat in a hidden-away corner of Virginia.
Bush’s scheduled one-hour speech at the Coal & Investment Leadership Forum will take place at the members-only Olde Farm club in Bristol, Virginia, where the civil war-themed golf tournament is a “cherished tradition”.
The under-the-radar appearance, which is invitation-only and off-limits to the press, will bring the potential presidential candidate face to face with the owners and chief executives of coalmining and energy companies at a critical time for the energy industry and for Bush’s political ambitions.
The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to finalize new rules for carbon pollution from power plants this summer, which the coalmining and electricity industries have condemned as a “war on coal”.
Bush meanwhile is relatively free of fundraising disclosure requirements until the official launch of his presidential campaign. The 2016 hopeful evidently signalled his willingness to meet with industry leaders as early as February when the hosts of the coal forum – all owners and executives of coalmining companies – emailed out the first save-the-date notices.
“It is a great opportunity to meet with stakeholders in the state,” Kristy Campbell, a spokeswoman for Bush, said. “He will be talking about a variety of topics.”
The former Florida governor is appearing at the invitation of six coalmining company owners and executives: Joe Craft III of Alliance Resource Partners, Kevin Crutchfield of Alpha Natural Resources, Nick DeIuliis of Consol Energy, Garry Drummond of Drummond Company, John Eaves of Arch Coal, and Jim McGlothlin of United Coal Company.
Between them, the six companies have spent more than $17.4m on campaigns and lobbying since the last presidential elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics Open Secrets website.
One of the executives, Joe Craft of Alliance, was ranked among the top 25 donors of the 2012 elections, giving $4.4m to Republican political action committees, according to the Center for Public Integrity .
Copies of the invitation were obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy, which monitors corporate influence in politics, and made available to the Guardian.
“I think the major question is what promises is Jeb Bush making to the coal chief executives in that room,” said Nick Surgey, the center’s research director. “We assume Bush is there to raise money for his campaign … it is pretty clear why Jeb Bush was invited there. If Jeb Bush is elected they want him to protect their industry.”
McGlothlin, founder of the United Coal Company and owner of the Olde Farm, said Bush would meet a variety of energy executives.
“Attendees are from across the board from the energy sector including not only coal industry executives but also some from oil and gas industry, manufacturers and supplies of the energy sector generally as well as leaders of the banking and financial industry that follow and impact the sector,” he said in an email.
The invitations to the three-day forum promise access to influential figures – including a potential future occupant of the White House – in a relaxed setting, with time for cocktails, golf lessons, and fishing. The $7,500 fee does not include lodging.
“Once again, significant time will also be available for golf, fly fishing, one-on-one meetings and small VIP discussion groups, which is the hallmark of this conference,” the invitation reads.
Carbon pollution on the table
Top of the energy industry executives’ minds will be the EPA rules which will for the first time limit carbon pollution from power plants and are the centerpiece of Barack Obama’s climate change agenda.
“They don’t want the clean power plan to go into effect, but they also want the president of the United States to facilitate coal exports,” Surgey said.
In addition to Bush, other speakers include Chris Horner, a lawyer at the ultra-conservative Competive Enterprise Institute and American Tradition Institute, and Bill Johnson, president of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the major electricity provider.
CEI sued the White House last year because of a video linking a polar vortex which brought bitter cold to much of the US to climate change.
McGlothlin said the executives were eager to hear what Bush said about energy – but the hour-long encounter would not be restricted to the EPA rules. “It would be our hope that he would touch upon his general energy policies,” McGlothlin said in an email.
The oil and coal lobbies are ferociously opposed to the EPA rules, as is the Republican leadership in Congress.
Some coal industry leaders – including Craft – have gone so far as to deny climate change was even occurring, or that carbon dioxide emissions were the driving factor.
Bush, in comments since he made it known he was seeking the Republican nomination, appears to subscribe to the same view.
At a campaign-style house party in New Hampshire last week, the presidential contender maintained – wrongly – that the causes of climate change were “convoluted”.
“I don’t think the science is clear what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural. It’s convoluted. And for the people to say the science is decided on, this is just really arrogant, to be honest with you,” he was reported as saying .
Meanwhile, CEI and ATI have repeatedly sued public universities and climate scientists, and filed open records requests to access email and research notes.
“They openly admit they are trying to find documents that would embarrass the scientists,” said Lauren Kurtz, director of the Climate Science Legal Defence Fund.
Horner would not respond to requests for comment.
The members-only 15-year-old club is known for its annual civil war-themed tournament. Members are assigned to the Union or Confederate side by picking a blue or grey marble out of a bag at the time of their acceptance into the club.
“I dreamed up the idea to integrate the membership … and break down real or imagined barriers,” McGlothlin told Links magazine in an interview. “Club members from all over the country address history head on and bond together to defend the cup for their team. It has become our most cherished tradition.”
The magazine noted that McGlothlin was on the blue side – the Union – despite deep roots in the south.
The 2012 elections saw a burst of spending on campaigns and lobbying from coal companies, especially those active in the traditional coalmining country of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky, with overwhelming industry support for Mitt Romney and political action committees supporting Republican candidates.
The coalmining industry also donated heavily to Republicans in the last congressional elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics Open Secrets website.
However, Democratic candidates in coal states such as Kentucky and West Virginia have also been close to the industry.
Even before coal stocks went into freefall last year, competition from the vast coal reserves of Wyoming’s Powder river basin and cheap natural gas was crowding out mines in Appalachia, forcing lay-offs and shutdowns.
The incoming EPA rules, which will make it virtually impossible to build new coal-fired power plants on a profit basis, are applying further pressure on the industry.
McGlothlin denied the industry was deepening its involvement in politics. However, he said that the coal industry forum intended to invite other potential presidential candidates to the forum in 2016. “By then we will hopefully have a clearer idea of who those candidates will be, both Democrat and Republican.”