Are the coalfield political campaigns all about coal?

October 4, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney poses for a photo with coal miners after a campaign event, Tuesday, May 29, 2012, in Craig, Colo.  (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Fresh from Wednesday night’s debate, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is headed back to coal country. He’s scheduled to visit southwest Virginia tomorrow for an event at Carter Machinery in Abingdon.

Meanwhile, there’s been a lot of media coverage of the back-and-forth between the campaigns about coal, so I thought we would just run through some of the more interesting examples.

Under the headline What’s the Deal With All the Coal Miner Campaign Ads, ABC News.com examined why both candidates are paying attention to and talking about coal issues. For example:

Coal miners may make up less than half of one percent of the American electorate, but those blue collar workers’ votes could pack a punch far beyond what their numbers suggest.

The majority of America’s coal production is clustered in a handful of states, three of which happen to be some of the most fiercely contested battleground states in 2012: Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia.

But the 27,000 Ohioans, 63,000 Pennsylvanians and 45,000 Virginians that are employed by the coal mining industry aren’t the only voters this recent coal country push is likely courting.

“The logic for Romney is to find a potential economic problem that is relevant to Ohio voters that can potentially be connected to Obama,” said Justin Buchler, an associate political science professor at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland. “It’s not just about coal miners; it’s about anyone who is willing to attribute economic blame to the president.”

Unfortunately, the ABC piece cited some pretty questionable and outdated numbers about job changes in the coal industry, while this story from Slate raises some interesting questions about the wisdom of courting coalfield voters, especially in Virginia:

At a morning hang-out with former Rep. Tom Davis, who held part of Northern Virginia for Republicans before his 2008 retirement, I asked how much oomph the coal ads could have. “Northern Virginia is 28 percent of the statewide vote,” said Davis. “Coal country is 9 percent. And the problem is that it’s not a growing vote. The NoVa vote is a growing vote. The Hispanic vote is growing. The Asian vote is growing.” Could Romney benefit from driving up the margins in this smaller electorate? Obviously. But — “We should be buying ads in Asian newspapers. They’re cheaper and they have an impact. A lot of this ad money is wasted.”

Addressing similar issues, The Washington Post reported:

In Virginia, Alpha Natural Resources has been playing the victim’s role as well. On Sept. 18, the $8 billion firm announced that due to a restructuring and bad market conditions, it was laying off 1,200 of its 14,000 workers and closing mines. The announcement reverberated through the political world as more evidence that Barack Obama was trying to kill the coal industry with excessive regulation.

There’s one problem with that. Alpha’s CEO Kevin Crutchfield told me in an interview nearly a year ago that Alpha would be undertaking an assessment of what properties it acquired in the Massey buyout. The takeover brought with it 6,700 Massey employees and some of the richest coal reserves in the world.

Of special interest are reserves of metallurgical coal, almost all of which is exported to make coke for the global steel industry, which is not at all impacted by U.S. air pollution rules. Alpha would be deciding what metallurgical, as well as steam coal for electricity generation reserves, to keep, Crutchfield told me in an interview for a book I was writing. He added that Alpha, like all coal operators, was facing “headwinds” from the unexpected flood of cheap natural gas produced by fracking. That would obviously be a factor in Alpha’s assessment, Crutchfield said.

So, it is indeed curious that after all this time, Alpha chose to announce its layoffs just a month and a half before 2012 elections. To be sure, Alpha said that the layoffs were part of a restructuring to make a better play in world metallurgical coal markets. But its executives certainly knew what the political ramifications would be.

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign event at the American Energy Corporation,  Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012, in Beallsville, Ohio.  (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Writing for EnergyBiz, Ken Silverstein explained that Obama and the EPA may no longer be the “bad guys” in this presidential contest:

It will be a softer message aimed at both coal and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has been the punching bag for the right and the go-to guy for the left that has unable to get its agenda through Congress. Each side has riled up its base as much as can be expected. Now, it’s time to go after the center — the place where the election will actually get decided.

As such, President Obama is playing up his “clean coal” agenda while Governor Romney is discussing a slow-down in regulations to stimulate economic growth. The question among onlookers is whether the former Massachusetts governor would balance the needs of businesses with the desire for a healthy environment or whether his responses to all such issues would be dogmatic and automatic.

Both candidates, for instance, are trying to win the battleground states of Colorado, Ohio and Virginia. All, notably, have a significant coal mining presence. It’s why the president has toned down his talk of the harmful effects of older coal-fired electric generation and turned instead to discussing his administration’s funding of advanced coal technologies that include carbon capture and burial.

Advertisements, meantime, have pounded Romney over his flip-flops, pointing out his one-time support of carbon caps and calling coal plants “killers.” He has responded with his own attacks, noting Vice President Biden’s comments in 2007 that more people die from dirty coal units than from terrorist attacks, although this is not something from which the vice president is running. But would Romney take a more judicious approach to executing laws if elected?

“I’d hope he’d go back to the way he was as governor of Massachusetts,” says Christine Todd Whitman, administrator of the EPA under George Bush II, in an interview with Politico. “Because in that position, he was finding the balance that can be struck between environmental protection and economic growth because it’s not a zero-sum game.”

 The Christian Science Monitor ran a similar piece, saying that President Obama may not be the coal industry’s worst enemy:

To be sure, environmental regulations designed to make coal-fired power plants cleaner are raising costs for the industry and having an effect, but the “war on coal” is coming less from the Obama administration than from natural gas, say some experts.

Coal-fired power plants and coal mines are being shuttered at an unprecedented pace mainly because the price of natural gas has dropped so far that it has made coal power uncompetitive. Specifically, electricity from natural gas power plants comes at less than half the cost of electricity from coal generators. As utility executives hustle to remain competitive in the deregulated marketplace, they are increasingly turning to the cheaper alternative, power market experts say.

And then there was this piece, mentioned previously here, from Molly Ball at The Atlantic, headlined, “Meet the Ohio Voters Who Are Killing Romney’s Campaign“:

MORRISTOWN, Ohio — This ought to be the place where President Obama’s reelection hopes went to die.

In the coal-mining country of Southeastern Ohio, half an hour from the West Virginia border, I expected to find a potent stew of anti-Obama sentiment. This area is the home of the downtrodden Appalachian whites who’ve never much trusted the president — but now, thanks to cultural resentments and the coal industry’s decline, they’re practically in open revolt. Just look at the results of the West Virginia presidential primary: rather than pull the lever for Obama, nearly 40 percent of the state’s Democrats cast votes instead for an unknown Texas prison inmate, Keith Judd, who’d managed to get his name on the ballot. As one Democratic elected official told me darkly, this part of the state is “the northernmost extension of the Confederacy.”

But in the day I spent criscrossing this rolling green landscape, it wasn’t that simple.

I found Fred Chafin in his driveway, leaning against a red pickup truck and sipping a can of Budweiser under a “Dale Earnhardt Jr. Boulevard” sign. “I wish there was somebody else to vote for — maybe Hillary,” the 51-year-old maintenance man said with a laugh. “I’m not really a Republican or a Democrat. I don’t know too much about Romney. But if he’s for the rich to get richer, I’m not for that.”

Chafin said he’d probably vote for Obama. He wished the deficit and unemployment were lower. But the president had, he thought, had a big mess to deal with, and four years probably wasn’t enough for anyone to turn that around.

Recent polls have the president winning Ohio — a state he took by less than 5 points four years ago — by 8, 9, and even 10 points. It’s hard to believe that Obama could actually better his margin from the heady heights of the 2008 campaign, but at this point, that is what he is poised to do. And in talking to voters here, in a region that should have been easy pickings for Romney, I started to understand why that might be the case. When the story of the 2012 election is written, if nothing major changes in the next few weeks, it will be voters like these who doomed Romney’s campaign.

 … Experts say the coal industry’s recent fortunes have more to do with a transition to cleaner fuels that partly preceded Obama and with the current low price of natural gas. And some of the miners seem to believe that, like Dan Gingerich, a 31-year-old who works underground and told me he blamed oil and gas more than Obama. “I’d like to be a Republican, but I don’t know if Romney really knows what to do,” he said. “I wish the Republicans would have somebody else.”

Ed Crooks, a retired former miner in a John Deere cap and salt-and-pepper mustache, told me he’s definitely not voting for Obama. What about Romney, I asked? “That’s a scary thought,” he said, chuckling. “I believe he’s going to cut the coal companies out and shut all the mines down. He thinks they’re responsible for people dying.”

Crooks wasn’t the only one to repeat this talking point about Romney calling coal plants deadly. At first, I had no idea what they were talking about. It turns out Romney, as governor of Massachusetts in 2003, held a press conference in front of a coal-fired power plant. “I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people,” he said, and then, gesturing at the facility behind him: “That plant, that plant kills people.” You can see the footage in an Obama campaign ad that’s been airing heavily here. It seems to have made an impression.

… I heard it over and over again from Ohioans — the idea that Romney stands for the wealthy and not for them. Obama’s depiction of his rival as an out-of-touch rich guy, which has gotten no little assistance from Romney himself, has made a deep and effective impression with these self-consciously working-class voters.

Burkhead had this to say as well: “Obama wasn’t handed a bucket of roses. Thus far, I think he’s about done what he can do. It doesn’t matter to me if someone’s pink, orange, green, blue or yellow if they do their job.”

The allusion to race seemed like a pointed one. Plenty of Democrats attribute Obama’s struggles in Appalachia to lingering racism, some latent, some not so. The problem for Romney is that he, too, seems alien to many voters here, whether because of his fortune or because of his Mormon faith.

… It is far too soon to write Romney’s obituary in Ohio or anywhere else, with a month still left in the campaign and the debates yet to begin. But Romney’s route to victory has always gone through the white, working-class regions that regard Obama with distrust. If he’s not making the sale here, where is he going to make it?

Finally, out of Kentucky, my friend Al Cross, writing for the Courier-Journal, had some interesting things to say about a local congressional race:

For most of the last century, the rock called coal and politicians named Chandler have been durable, prominent fixtures on the Kentucky political landscape. This fall they have collided. For both, it seems like an existential struggle.

The coal industry, especially in Central Appalachia, is facing more stress and challenges than at any time since much of it was unionized in the Great Depression, and maybe ever.

Coal is the chief culprit in climate change, its main market is shrinking as electric utilities switch to suddenly cheap natural gas, and Democrats in Washington are trying to rein in its excesses with new rules to limit greenhouse-gas emissions, make underground mining safer, and finally apply the letter of the 1977 strip-mine law to the environmental offense known as mountaintop-removal mining.

… Those battles are being fought outside the coalfields, in places like Kentucky’s Bluegrass, scene of the state’s biggest race this fall.U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler of Versailles, a grandson of twice-Gov. and once-Sen. A.B. “Happy” Chandler, had a very close call in the anti-Obama wave of 2010, keeping his 6th District seat by only 647 votes out of 239,000 cast in a race with Republican Andy Barr of Lexington. Barr is running again, but on Lexington television during the last two weeks Chandler’s main foe has been a coal guy named Heath Lovell.

In the middle of the Chandler-Lovell battle, Congress recessed for the campaign season. As it headed home, Chandler apparently felt coal’s heat. He joined 18 other House Democrats in voting for a Republican bill dubbed the “Stop the ‘War on Coal’ Act,” which would ban regulation of greenhouse gases, keep the Interior Department from issuing any new rules that threaten coal production or jobs through 2013, and reverse the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to control water pollution from mountaintop mining (already blocked in court) and air pollution from mercury, which comes mainly from burning coal.

The vote was somewhat surprising, since Chandler announced last week that his most recent poll showed him still leading Barr by double digits, and Barr didn’t really dispute it.

When I asked him about the vote, Chandler said it wasn’t the first time that he had sided with coal interests, and that he does so “if I think it’s important for the coal industry” and economic development and jobs in his district. He could have also said, accurately, that the bill is going nowhere, but that would have been too cynical for public consumption.

But Obama is essentially anti-coal, and Chandler endorsed him in the 2008 primary, so the congressman’s coal issues are intertwined with the President — who is likely to be a larger factor in the 6th District than coal. That’s why Republicans have made the rock such an issue, along with the fact that Chandler, the 2003 Democratic nominee for governor, remains a potential statewide candidate.

The polls suggest that the broader electorate of a presidential year is working in Chandler’s favor, as many expected, but he represents one of the country’s few truly swing districts, and any number of circumstances beyond his control could change the nature of the race.

Chandler has reason to be cautious, because a defeat could easily end his political career. But those of us who like a little more courage in our politicians prefer the Ben Chandler who stood up to the coal industry when it counted.

Commenting on that same race, the Herald Leader headlined its piece 6th District concerns go beyond coal; Chandler, Barr need to talk about pressing area needs:

Who knew? Nothing matters more to the roughly 650,000 Kentuckians in the 6th Congressional District than coal and Medicare.

At least you’d think that from watching the campaigns’ television spots.

Still, Lexington and the 18 other counties deserve better than attack ads that tell us zilch about the candidates’ visions for the district or future.

No, it’s been pretty much Medicare — each candidate would destroy it, according to the other — and a coal love-in, though, as far as we know, the district has not one working coal mine.

That’s not to say coal is irrelevant. Lexington is home to engineers, lawyers and others who make livings from the industry, not to mention the Kentucky Coal Association.

The problem with both camps’ repeated avowals of love for coal is they’re reinforcing the mistaken notion that the good times would roll if only Washington had enough coal lovers to turn back the clock on environmental regulation.

Appalachian coal’s problems are much deeper and market-rooted than that, including depleted reserves and competition from cheaper natural gas.

Political campaigns are about more than winning; they’re about governing and leading. You can’t build a sound future by misrepresenting the present.

Trustworthy leaders don’t mislead, even in 30-second spots.

One Response to “Are the coalfield political campaigns all about coal?”

  1. bubby clay says:

    Obama is anticoal !, he and his epa destroying the coal industry, romney has said different times he support’s coal as he did in the debate. These west virginia people running for national and regional post’s in this election are screaming they support coal well if they’ll answer one question WHO DO THEY SUPPORT FOR PRESIDENT?. west virginia coal miners and their families depend on coal for everything.

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