“We believe what is coming through the administration is an attempt to take coal out of the equation,” said Mike Knotts, spokesman for the Tennessee cooperatives. “We believe that is the desire of the Obama administration.” Knotts and Glenn English, head of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, have called for rewriting the Clean Air Act to provide what they describe as a more certain regulatory environment for utilities, including a future for coal.

The NRECA ranks among Washington’s most powerful lobbying groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending. The association already has spent nearly $2.6 million on the 2012 elections, the center said. That includes contributions of several thousand dollars apiece to most members of the Tennessee congressional delegation.

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander agrees with the NRECA’s view on coal, telling Congressional Quarterly recently: “The EPA has no business regulating carbon. We (Congress) should be deciding that question, but apparently we can’t agree enough to decide any question when clean air is the issue, so we leave it to bureaucracies.”

The government-owned Tennessee Valley Authority—the sole power supplier to the state’s rural electric cooperatives—also relies heavily on coal. In its most recent fiscal year, 57% of its power came from coal and fossil fuels. Among the power plants owned by rural electric cooperatives nationwide, 85% are coal-fired.