Coal Tattoo

Burying the lead: Missing the real coal story

Thomas Peak, center, and Allen Stapleton, right, join others at the United for Coal demonstration in Wise County, Va. on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012, coming straight from work at a local coal mine. ”  Groups of coal supporters that lined up sporadically along this Virginia highway were among thousands of people who turned out in at least three states to put a human face on an embattled industry. Its plight has become an issue in the presidential as well as in local and statewide races. (AP Photo/Debra McCown)

In the last few weeks, Columbia Journalism Review has posted at least two separate pieces (see here and here) that made it clear how the mainstream media – especially political reporters — were bumbling the story of how coal policy fits into the ongoing presidential campaign. Anybody with access to Google can do a quick search to find out the truth about the coal industry’s claims of an Obama administration “war on coal.” I tried in a recent piece for The Nation magazine to explain why the notion that President Obama and his EPA have done all they could to stop coal mining is just a myth. For example:

It’s also worth remembering that on one key issue—a new nationwide standard on smog—Obama personally intervened to stop the EPA from moving forward with a rule that, according to a recent Johns Hopkins study, would have helped avoid 2,450 to 4,130 deaths from heart attacks and respiratory diseases each year. And a promised rule to enact the first federal standards to govern the handling and disposal of toxic ash from coal-fired power plants remains long overdue.

Even on coal miner safety and health, Obama’s performance has been mixed. The president appointed longtime United Mine Workers of America safety director Joe Main to run the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. But his term saw the worst US coal mining disaster in nearly forty years, when twenty-nine miners died on April 5, 2010, in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. The MSHA responded with tougher inspections and a flurry of new rules and proposed legislation. But some of the agency’s key rules—such as one restricting coal dust limits underground in an effort to eliminate black lung disease—remain bottled up, a casualty of the White House’s efforts to avoid appearing too tough on business.

So it’s pretty disappointing with the world’s largest and oldest news-gathering organization — The mighty Associated Press — puts out a story like the one that moved on the wires on Friday afternoon. The story was written by Donna Cassata and AP suggested member news organizations use the headline, “Dems in coal states diverge on Obama policies.” You can read the whole thing online here. This is how it started out:

ST. CLAIRSVILLE, Ohio (AP) — Friends of coal are certain they know the enemy.

They fault President Barack Obama and his Environmental Protection Agency for new clean air rules they deride as a devastating blow to a multibillion-dollar industry that has been the lifeblood of Appalachia for generations. The agency standards imposed earlier this year tightened limits on existing coal powered-plant emissions while guidelines on restricting greenhouse gases could affect new plants as early as 2013.

Along the rolling hills of this tiny Ohio town – population just over 5,100 – campaign signs for judges, state legislators and county officials crowd the neat lawns. As the road curves toward the interstate, one banner overshadows them all: “End the war on coal. Fire Obama.”

Barb Swan, who runs Swan’s Sport Shop on West Main Street, is a registered Democrat and daughter of a coal miner. She won’t be voting for Obama and she won’t back Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, whom she contends puts the president’s energy policies over the interests of his constituents.

“If you have a district that’s coal, you fight for coal,” argued the 67-year-old Swan.

The story goes on like that for eight paragraphs until it bothers to introduce any contrary information and, even then, it’s only a weak denial from a White House spokesman:

The White House, for its part, insists that the criticism of its record on coal is unfounded.

“The president has made clear that coal has an important role to play in our energy economy today and it will in the future, which is why this administration has worked to make sure that moving forward we can continue to rely on a broad range of domestic energy sources from oil and gas, to wind and solar, to nuclear, as well as clean coal,” said Clark Stevens, a White House spokesman.

The administration points to a 31 percent increase in coal exports and greater flexibility in enforcing the new standards. The economic prospects for coal, Stevens said, “reflect the independent, financial decisions that utilities are making in response to the increase in cheap, abundant natural gas.”


Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigns in front of The Golden Lamb Inn and Restaurant in Lebanon, Ohio, Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Only then does the writer bother to bring in any, well, facts:

Coal’s woes do extend far beyond the new EPA rules.

Natural gas is plentiful, less expensive and more environmentally friendly. A rush is on in the same Appalachian towns where coal has been king to claim natural gas mineral rights in the region’s Marcellus and Utica shale reserves …

In 2011, U.S. production of natural gas surpassed coal production for the first time in 20 years, according to the government’s Energy Information Administration. China’s economic slowdown and the diminishing demand for the top-grade coal to make steel has affected coal in the eastern United States. Other countries, such as Brazil, are moving ahead with their production.

The story includes some other background paragraphs about coal’s negative impacts, but there’s not one voice in the story who talks about things like water pollution, air pollution or the growing science that shows the damage caused by mountaintop removal coal mining. And the entire piece is told through the quotes of candidates or paid spokespeople. In an 1,800-word story, the AP couldn’t room for one actual expert on energy markets to talk about what’s really happening in this industry.

Part of the problem here is the whole formula of campaign coverage, where political reporters cover the horse race aspects with a focus on polling, the advertising campaign with a focus on 30-second spots, or the rhetoric, with a focus on local “color” to show readers they’ve been outside of the beltway or New York and mingling with real Americans. Providing readers with actual “facts” about the important policy debates is relegated to sidebars by separate “fact checkers” — pieces that don’t get published by every news website in the country like this AP story on coal.

Over at The Huffington Post, senior writer Tom Zeller Jr. didn’t really do much better than the AP with his latest piece, though he got a better headline: Presidential Campaigns Peddle A ‘Bunch Of Stuff’ To Coal Workers. Zeller at least started off with a more interesting premise, by pointing out that neither candidate in this presidential campaign has necessarily carried coal’s water:

With swing states like Ohio and Virginia tucked neatly into coal country, it should come as no surprise that both President Barack Obama and the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, are eagerly positioning themselves as “friends of coal.”

But the truth is, neither man has a legitimate claim to the title.

And the nut graph was pretty weak:

Just how well any of this plays in coal country is an open question, but the coal friendly pretense on both sides has never really stood up to scrutiny. To be sure, Romney is the favorite among coal executives and industry lobbyists. By their estimation, the Environmental Protection Agency under Obama, with its raft of regulations and proposed new rules designed to curb greenhouse gases, mercury, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants from coal-burning power plants, is determined to crush the industry.

Zeller’s piece had the benefit of reintroducing former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship into the campaign discussion:

Asked whether Obama’s ad carried any weight in coal country, Don Blankenship, the former chief executive of the now-defunct coal giant Massey Energy, said, “only for pensioners or the uninformed. Coal miners and their families,” he continued, “are well aware of Obama’s anti-fossil fuel positions.”

But like the AP story, it took an awful long time to get into the meat of what’s behind coal’s current decline:

Still, while it’s true that coal’s contribution to the American energy portfolio is shrinking fast, EPA actions are only part of the picture — and a very small part at the moment. Much bigger, according to most analysts: cheap natural gas, which is nudging electricity producers to switch fuels.

No doubt stiffer EPA rules will make life difficult for coal producers over the long haul — and perhaps even continue to shrink the coal workforce. But what the Romney campaign carefully ignores when positioning the candidate as a protector of coal jobs is that the industry — increasingly mechanized and less needful of manpower — has been shedding jobs for a long time anyway, even as production has risen.

This kind of coverage is very convenient for presidential campaigns, and also for local candidates for statewide and federal offices. The real story of what’s behind coal’s decline is carefully buried within or below the industry’s false narrative about a non-existent Obama administration effort to eliminate the industry. Missing from the discussion, then, is any talk about whether additional regulations are a reasoned and long-overdue response to coal’s downsides. And never mentioned at all are the lack of planning by local leaders to diversity coalfield economies for the inevitable day when coal declines or, eventually, runs out.

President Barack Obama makes phone calls to volunteers at an campaign field office with Alexa Kissinger, left, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, in Williamsburg, Va. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)