Presumed presidential candidate Jeb Bush spoke Monday afternoon to coal industry CEOs at a closed door conference in Bristol, Virginia, drawing preemptive expressions of concern from environmental activists.
Bush was the only potential presidential candidate on the agenda at the fourth annual meeting of the Coal & Investment Leadership Forum, which includes top officers of some of the largest coal firms in the eastern United States.
A spokesperson for Bush said the former Florida governor was happy to meet with corporate leaders "who are trying to grow the economy and create jobs, something being made more difficult by the excessive regulations and repressive policies of the Obama Administration."
A copy of the official invitation, provided to The Washington Post, listed the CEOs of Arch Coal, Consol Energy, Drummond Company and others as planning to attend.
The industry has felt under siege in recent years as global warming became a frequent topic of conversation around the world and as environmental groups organized campaigns to fight it.
Environmental activists have not been particularly happy with Bush's statements on the topic. "The climate is changing," he said last month in New Hampshire, but added that "I don't think the science is clear on what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural. It's convoluted. And for people to say the science is decided on this is just really arrogant, to be honest with you. It's this intellectual arrogance that now you can't have a conversation about it, even."
Even before Bush met with the coal industry Monday, critics sounded off. "Since the U.S. is facing increasing urgency to tackle climate change, it’s clear why the coal industry would want Bush in their corner," said Nick Surgey of the Center for Media & Democracy, which first raised concerns about the event.
The legislative director of the Sierra Club, Melinda Pierce, offered more stinging criticism in a statement over the weekend. "The coal industry is desperate to avoid being held accountable for its toxic pollution, and will hitch their wagon to any candidate who spouts their rhetoric," she said in a prepared statement.
Security was evident during the day Monday outside the Olde Farm resort in Bristol, where the event was held.
While Bush had the coveted spot as the only candidate at the Virginia gathering, other GOP candidates are jockeying to impress the industry. Coal industry support has been coveted in battleground states of the Ohio River Valley since the 2000 presidential campaign.
That year, Republican George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in West Virginia, previously considered a Democratic stronghold. Last week, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum declared his presidential candidacy in his home state with a lump of coal in one hand and an American flag in the other, a sign of his fealty to an industry executive branch regulatory proposals. Encouraged by grassroots anger and an industry-funded campaign, GOP candidates around the country have been speaking up against Obama administration EPA rules that would limit carbon emissions.