Almost over: One last flurry of coal election stories

November 5, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

President Barack Obama waves to supporters during a campaign event at McArthur High School, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012, in Hollywood, Fla. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

With Election Day finally almost here, there’s been a flurry of last-minute coverage of coal-mining issues and coal’s role in the campaigns, including another big report from The Nation, co-written by Lee Fang and Mike Elk:

In a bid to assert their influence on issues relating to climate change as well as environmental and labor regulations, fossil fuel companies are making an unprecedented election-season push. Documents obtained by The Nation reveal that oil, gas and coal companies are taking advantage of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision to not only blanket swing states with ads but also push their employees and contractors into voting GOP.

CONSOL Energy, a fracking and coal company active in Appalachia in key states like Pennslyvania and Ohio, announced this week that they will soon be laying off workers because of President Obama’s policies. As the company released the impending job cuts, CONSOL’s CEO, Brett Harvey, went on Fox Business Network to praise Romney, claiming that he “understands coal” and will move forward to create “red, white and blue jobs.”

Harvey’s company, like many in the fossil fuel industry, is also pressing its case directly to workers. Workers at CONSOL at its corporate headquarters in Washington, Pennsylvania are greeted with signs imploring them: “I pledge to vote for American Energy Coal & Natural Gas.”

CONSOL Energy has also mailed voter guides to its 8,800 employees located primarily in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio that endorse Mitt Romney for president. The guides, obtained exclusively by The Nation, state that “Obama’s environmental policy is frequently described as a ‘War on Coal’ ” and goes on to state how Obama’s environmental policies effectively bar the construction of new coal power plants. The CONSOL Energy Voting Guide also states that Mitt Romney “will implemented measured reforms of environmental statutes and regulations to strengthen environmental protection without destroying jobs, paralyzing industry, or barring the use of resources like coal.”

We’ve reported before in the Gazette about CONSOL’s expenditures on this voting guide, but The Nation’s story actually links to the guide and provides this important context:

Coal and gas companies are powering even the biggest Super PACs. Americans for Prosperity, a right-wing advocacy group financed by Koch that is spending over $140 million this year, just announced $3 million in television ads in Michigan and Pennsylvania, and has at least five field offices in the Keystone State. Six-figure donations from Oxbow Carbon, Alpha Natural Resources and Cumberland Natural Resources have allowed pro-Romney Super PACs American Crossroads and Restore Our Future to saturate states like Ohio with negative television ads.

The fossil fuel industry is expected to be working to overcome the revived sense of urgency to address climate change after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. House Democrats are again urging hearings on the effect of global warming on extreme weather events. Next year, the Environmental Protection Agency will continue to develop regulations to curb carbon emissions. Corporations reliant on burning fossil fuels are hoping a change in administration, or more pro-polluter pressure from Capitol Hill, could overturn the EPA’s efforts.

One of the other more interesting last-minute pieces is a profile by Linda Blackford of the Lexington Herald-Leader of Joe Craft, the politically powerful CEO of Alliance Coal. Linda writes:

Craft’s name is well-known in Kentucky, even if his face is not. He sits at the nexus of three things about which Kentuckians care a lot: UK basketball, coal and politics. In all three venues, as his business empire has grown, so have his donations, spending and influence, making Craft one of the most powerful non-elected individuals in the state.

The story goes on:

Statistics kept by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration show that Alliance’s mines in Kentucky generally have safety records that are at or better than national standards. A big exception was 2010, when miner James Falk died at River View after being struck by a shuttle car, and miners Michael Carter and Justin Travis were killed in a roof fall at the Dotiki mine in Hopkins County.

The MSHA report on Falk’s death cited the River View mine operators for not properly training Falk in safety procedures. In the Dotiki incident, federal investigators concluded the roof fall was caused by hidden “slips” or breaks in the shale bed overhead.

“The absence of any sign of ‘slips’ in the immediate roof gave no warning for the need to install supplemental or additional support,” the report concluded, but officials did cite Dotiki operators for not adequately supporting the roof.

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney reaches out to shake hands with supporters as he campaigns at Colorado Springs Municipal Airport in Colorado Springs, Col., Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

And:

In an old industry, Alliance is a relatively new player, now reaping the benefits of the booming Illinois basin coalfields in Western Kentucky. But in a short amount of time, its influence has reached across the state.

Craft’s statewide political donations show the usual pragmatism of many coal operators who have provided largesse to coal-supporting candidates, regardless of party.

For example, he’s given $28,500 to candidates for state offices since 2008, with a bigger share going to Democrats, according to the Kentucky Registry for Election Finance.

Craft and other Alliance employees have given Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear nearly $13,000 for his gubernatorial campaigns. In addition, Alliance employees have given more than $83,000 to state candidates in both parties.

… Beshear also appointed Craft to his Kentucky Climate Action Plan Council, which was designed to help Kentucky work toward “energy independence” and a smaller carbon footprint. Craft sent an email to the council before its February, 2010 meeting, saying he would vote against the group’s final report.

“I do not believe it is appropriate or in the best interest of Kentucky to recommend policies that would move Kentucky from low-cost energy options to high-cost energy options,” Craft wrote. “Such policies threaten to undermine Kentucky’s competitive advantage of having the third lowest electricity rates in the United States.”

The final report was issued, although one participant said it was clear representatives of the major utilities and coal would win out.

“A lot of the hard work that went into crafting the positions got overturned right at the end by a few votes here and there,” said David Brown Kinloch, president of Soft Energy Associates, which focuses on small hydro-electric projects. “We recognized going in that the whole thing was stacked against the environmental community.”

Craft has expressed doubts about the danger of climate change and the best solution. He told KET’s Goodman “there is significant debate about the science, and the gravity of the issues we’re facing.

“As we think about jobs and the economy of America, how do you balance that with the harm?” he said. “That’s where there’s a big debate in my mind to where we’re focused on going to the highest cost solution without really understanding the benefit we’re getting.”

Meanwhile, the group ClimateSilence.org has put together what David Roberts at Grist calls “The most brutal ad you’ll see this election“:

There’s been a flurry of last-minute opinion pieces (here and here, for example) that have tried to pile onto the coal industry’s false narrative that an Obama administration “war on coal” is destroying the industry and that more of the same is sure to come in a second term. The most ridiculous of these was a Washington Examiner piece by conservative activist Conn Carroll headlined November surprise: EPA planning major post-election anti-coal regulation, which — citing one unnamed source — opined:

President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency has devoted an unprecedented number of bureaucrats to finalizing new anti-coal regulations that are set to be released at the end of November, according to a source inside the EPA.

More than 50 EPA staff are now crashing to finish greenhouse gas emission standards that would essentially ban all construction of new coal-fired power plants. Never before have so many EPA resources been devoted to a single regulation.

Obama surrogates are going to be out again today trying to bat down the “war on coal” narrative. Politico and The Hill both previewed remarks expected to come from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka during campaigning in Ohio:

We face a serious choice, my friends. I’m a third-generation coal miner. I grew up in Nemacolin, not too far from here, and I’ll never forget the day I told my father I landed a job in the mines. He wasn’t happy for me. I thought he would be! But he was angry, and he told me if I went down there once, the coal would creep down into my soul, and I’d never get it out.

I didn’t understand my father’s feelings then, but I do now. You see, he worked as a coal miner so I wouldn’t have to. My father spent his life mining coal, and he died of black lung to provide our family with a better life, and I see that now.

And as a coal miner, my father organized and campaigned with his union—with my union—with the UMWA—to give miners a voice on the job, to keep mines as safe as possible and to help miners live longer and live better, and that’s a legacy that I take seriously. It’s my legacy. It’s our legacy. And it’s the legacy of Barack Obama and Bob Casey and so many of our elected leaders in Pennsylvania.

Mitt Romney says there’s a war on coal, and he’s right. But it’s a war he started in Massachusetts when he sued the EPA to force new regulations to kill coal jobs. Today, Mitt Romney has campaigned against those same exact regulations and he blames them on President Obama. But we know the truth.

Mitt Romney says he’ll be a coal president, but he swore he’d cut funding for clean coal technology. And you know and I know that clean coal technology creates jobs… good jobs. And if that funding gets cut, those jobs will get cut.

Mitt Romney says he’ll create jobs. He won’t create jobs. He got rich by making America poor, by outsourcing good jobs and importing cheap Chinese goods. That’s what Romney knows. That’s what Romney is.

Efforts by either the Obama administration or the president’s re-election campaign to tell their side of the story on coal have come very late in the game, after four years of a brutal and constant “war on coal” narrative pushed by the industry and regional political leaders in Appalachia, aided by the local media. And even now that they’re responding, as I’ve explained before, their response very clearly obscures the long-term issues faced in coalfield communities.

We touched on these issues in print stories on Saturday and Sunday in which we made clear again that EPA regulations are but one — and not the major one — of many pressures behind the Appalachian coal industry’s current decline.  The notion that this election is going to suddenly solve these issues, that another huge coal boom is just around the corner, remains as cynical and misleading as it was when the industry started the “war on coal” campaign years ago.

Alpha Natural Resources CEO (and Mitt Romney backer) Kevin Crutchfield himself made that clear in his company’s quarter financial conference call:

It’s difficult to see right now conditions in which much of Central Appalachian steam [coal] could come back into production anytime soon.

And when asked what a change in leadership at the White House might do to help Central Appalachian coal, Crutchfield didn’t sound especially optimistic:

If there were to be an administration change you’ve to be honest with yourself in terms of what can be done. One thing that I think is difficult is to reverse decisions that have been made over the course of the last several years. I do think that is challenging. Everybody likes to talk about it, but I think we’re all pretty realistic in terms of how difficult that can be.

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