‘War on coal’ effort fails to beat President Obama, but will reality of industry challenges soak in?

November 7, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

President Barack Obama waves as he walks on stage with first lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha at his election night party Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Chicago. Obama defeated Republican challenger and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Well, it turns out that Nate Silver knows a bit more about making predictions than any of the television pundits:  President Obama won re-election, giving him another four years in the White House — and creating a window where coalfield leaders and residents could try to come to grips with the reality of the challenges facing the mining industry.

Will that happen?

My first call this morning was to Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, who seems to be of two minds on this. On the one hand, Bill acknowledged that the industry’s fierce “war on coal” public relations campaign against President Obama and so many other politicians seemed not to have necessarily worked as they had hoped. Some changes might be in order, he said:

We’ll go through the components of it and see what parts of it can be adjusted. I suspect there’s going to be a lot of adjustment that goes on. Whatever is going to work we’re going to do that.

On the other hand, Bill also made it clear that he believes the ball is in the Obama administration’s court, and the officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should take the first step in trying to address the industry’s concerns about various regulatory initiatives:

We certainly welcome the opportunity to sit down and say, ‘how do we address this?’ Hopefully there will be a change in attitude in regulations from the administration. We simply have been victimized by them and targeted by them. There needs to be a change on the side of the administration and then there will be a change by the industry.

But let’s remember — without being too incredibly obvious — that President Obama won the election.  Sure, he didn’t win West Virginia, not by a long shot, and Republican Mitt Romney won something like seven of what are generally the top dozen or so coal-producing states.  In Kentucky, the Obama “war on coal” is generally credited with defeating incumbent Rep. Ben Chandler, a Democrat. And here in West Virginia, there’s no doubt that coal-mining issues played a role in large gains for Republicans in our Legislature, and perhaps for the victory of Republican Patrick Morrisey over longtime Attorney General Darrell V. McGraw.  Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, told me via email this morning:

It is important to note that in Kentucky and West Virginia, the President performed very badly and, in the Congressman’s own words, cost Rep. Ben Chandler his reelection.

From the more than 61,000 Friends of Coal license plates on Kentucky vehicles to coal being a major campaign topic at both the state and national level, we are hopeful that the President’s “pro-coal” comments from the campaign reflect a new direction for his administration and not an attempt to shore up an electorate in states who continue to see him as anti-coal in both word and action.

But look around the country at other places where Republicans and the coal industry tried to play the Obama “war on coal” game: Outside of West Virginia, Democrats who were endorsed by the United Mine Workers, but painted as not pro-coal and anti-Obama enough by their opponents won six crucial U.S. Senate races in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Montana, New Mexico and Indiana. Or consider that in southeastern Ohio, while the major coal counties all backed Romney, turnout in those counties dropped by 7 percent over 2008, meaning there simply weren’t enough votes there to help Romney overcome the Obama advantage in other parts of the state.

W.Va. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin raises his hand in the air to signify the next four years of his term after being re-elected on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/Randy Snyder)

The National Mining Association had this to say about President Obama’s victory:

The National Mining Association (NMA) extends its congratulations to President Obama upon his reelection.  NMA remains committed to working with the administration and the Congress on an ‘all of the above’ energy strategy that includes coal, our most abundant energy resource, and on policies that support a dependable supply of domestic minerals production to meet the nation’s needs.

But others in the coal industry weren’t as conciliatory. The election’s result brought the first “tweet” in more than two years from former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship:

Mr Obama: “Saving your government” isn’t the same as “saving our country.”

Here in West Virginia, Sen. Joe Manchin and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin both faced similar charges that they were part of the Obama “war on coal.” Both won re-election easily, but that doesn’t seem to have them any more eager than they were before to take bold steps to deal with the negative impacts of coal on the environment, coal miners, and coalfield residents — let alone tackle coal’s greenhouse emissions or really start planning for the ongoing decline of coal production in Southern West Virginia.

Take Sen. Manchin for instance. In celebrating his victory last night, he began calling for a presidential “healing tour” of all 50 states, as Pam Kasey reported in the State Journal:

Manchin re-affirmed his commitment to work with his fellow lawmakers of both parties.

“Everywhere I go on the campaign trail, people are begging us to stop the political divisiveness and bickering that are hurting our country,” he said.

“We’ve all heard the same thing: ‘Why can’t you all work together?'” he said. “The time has come to put our country first, to put an end to the political games, to seize this opportunity and to rebuild America.”

He suggested that the next president — now known to be Obama — should go on a “presidential healing tour,” looking at the potential in each state, and invited him to start in West Virginia.

Keep in mind that this talk of healing our political wounds comes from the guy whose political advertisements featured the symbolic use of a gun to defeat a piece of legislation he didn’t like. And then there’s Gov. Tomblin, who used his appearance this morning on the MetroNews Talkline show with Hoppy Kercheval to continue to  deny that hard times for the coal industry are ahead, regardless of what EPA does:

Obviously, the loss of coal jobs is a huge concern. Hopefully, the coal market will rebound sometime here in the near future.

Maybe coalfield leaders will think this through more carefully after they’ve come down from the election rush.  The United Mine Workers, for example, was pretty short and sweet in their official statement today from union President Cecil Roberts:

I congratulate President Obama and Vice President Biden on their hard-fought victory yesterday. In the end, they laid out a vision for America’s future that the majority of our fellow citizens believe is the right path for our nation.

Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, had some ideas for what needs to happen now, and included them in this piece written for Grist:

As coal is eclipsed by other forms of energy, people in coal country are justifiably concerned about their livelihoods and their future. Perhaps the results of this election will finally push some of our leaders to start talking honestly about the challenges we face and the need to diversify coal state economies— in short, to provide some leadership. Our region’s decision-makers would be doing a far greater service to their constituents by using their political clout to bring federal resources that will help Appalachia and other mining regions make a transition, rather than digging in their heels and refusing to acknowledge that the world is changing.

In Appalachia and beyond, one thing is certain — President Obama’s re-election means that for four more years, the marketplace and the American people will continue to move away from coal, and the coal barons won’t have a crony in the White House to try and stop that inevitable shift.

18 Responses to “‘War on coal’ effort fails to beat President Obama, but will reality of industry challenges soak in?”

  1. rgriffith says:

    West Virginians are lucky that President Obama needs Manchin’s vote in the Senate because otherwise Manchin’s (and Tomblin’s) explicitly anti-Obama campaign rhetoric would have to tempt Obama to tell them both to go to hell the next time WV wants something from the Feds. One can only hope the President is willing to let campaign bygones be bygones.

  2. Jolene says:

    I truly feel for coal miners, they are just trying to provide a good quality of life for their families; however, I do believe some have been fed so much garbage by the coal company executives that they can’t see that coal will run out sometime. The executives just want to make a killing and retire somewhere else – to hell with the miners who have helped them make the money, (for example, Don Blankenship). Look at what has happend in the past, while coal was booming the local towns flourished, but once the easy coal was gone, look at the ghost towns. It is not an easy answer, but I do feel if the companies were willing to do what they can to protect the environment, they could still make some money, maybe not so much as they want.

  3. PJD says:

    West Virginia was the only state where majorities of every single county chose Romney. Even Wyoming had a county that chose Obama. This is remarkable.

  4. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Where did you get that information?

    It appears to me that every county in Utah went for Romney

    And so did every county in Oklahoma,


  5. Sean says:

    The coal fields are primarily based in the poorest and least educated states. Looking at the electoral breakdown of the election: 13 of the 15 MOST eduacated states voted Obama while 9 of the 10 LEAST educated states voted Romney. Which list will you find Kentucky and West Virginia?

  6. ambrose says:

    Sean writes…13 out 15 of the most educated states voted Obama. Those states also have the most people on welfare and food stamps. Also 4 years of college may get you a certificate that claims one is educated, it does not claim one is wise. Being intelligent does not automatic transfer into wisdon. There is a difference.

  7. Bo Webb says:

    Like Jolene, I too feel for coal miners and their families. I also care about their children’s future as well as mine. The coal industry only cares about its own future, and unfortunately, they stoke the fears of their workers in an effort to max their bottom line for as long as they can.
    Fear is an element of human nature. The coal industry knows this all too well and has used it for more than 100 years to get their way. It has hindered efforts to diversify our economy, to create new good paying jobs. A child in an Appalachian coal community is born and raised in the atmosphere of fear. Our schools teach coal, the Coal Fair, the CEDAR program, endless TV advertising. Our kids are conditioned to accept coal as their only future; even as coal has gotten so scarce that we now accept the act of blowing up our mountains, jeopardizing our own health and that of our kids for a short term job. Deputies like Bill Raney get paid to tout ideas like “war on coal”. There is no war on coal, but there sure is a War on the People and the People’s future. We that live in coal communities, including generations of coal miners before us have been used as dancing hillbillies for the coal industry far too long. We have a right to determine our own future; but because of fear of change we continue to vote the same coal crats back into office.
    Until we as a people understand and come to grips with the reality of coals future in WV we are destined to be used by those that seek to plunder our mountains and our minds. As family providers, good hard working coal miners that care about their Children’s well being and future need to take some responsibility here also and stop allowing themselves to be used as pawns by the industry and their surrogate politicians. When Joe Manchin points a rifle at the EPA they should be outraged that Manchin in a real sense is ignoring the health and well being future of their children. We need to make it crystal clear to our so called leaders that they need to stop propping up coal, do the work of the People, and begin to address WV’s need for NEW jobs without coal because coal certainly is not a large part of WV’s mid and long term future. I don’t believe it to be a great challenge to create a new WV with good paying sustainable jobs. A challenge, yes, but an impossible task, no way. As the great Franklin D Roosevelt said when faced with a much bigger challenge, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.

  8. Bo Webb says:

    Ambrose, Can you give us the resource for your statement “Sean writes…13 out 15 of the most educated states voted Obama. Those states also have the most people on welfare and food stamps” I’m curious to see that. If our most educated states are also the most unemployed that is indeed interesting. Where did you find that?

  9. Like others who have commented, I feel sorry for the miners whose future is on shaky ground. I don’t want anyone to lose their jobs and suffer, and that’s why I wish we were doing more to diversify the economy with a coal mining regions of the state, because the mining and burning of coal is increasingly unsustainable.

    The coal industry employs only about one-eighth the number of peope it did 60 years ago, but there has not been a corresponding decrease in coal production. WHY? Explosives and giant earthmoving equipment, that’s why. For the coal industry it’s far more cost effective to simply blow up the mountains, fill in the streams, and sort the coal out of the dirt. And yes, people get paid to help do that, but at what cost to the environment? The coal industry insists that there are hundreds of years’ worth of coal still to be extracted from the mountains of West Virginia; can you imagine what our state will look like when every last nugget of coal has been sifted out?

    If I was a coal miner and my kid came up to me and said, “Daddy, when I grow up I wanna be a coal miner just like YOU!” … I would tell him, “NO, son, I want you to go to school, get a college degree, and do something else besides coal mining, because THERE’S NO FUTURE IN IT!”

  10. Bo Webb says:

    I decided to look at Ambrose’s statement a little closer so I did some research for myself. These stats are from the US Bureau of Labor statistics: I added WV at the end. It seems to me that these states voted for Obama because they experienced job growth improvement, not because they are welfare seekers. 4 republican states with most jobs gained voted Romney. WV voted for coal regardless of job increases.
    The very idea that 47% of Americans are lazy welfare seekers is the definition of arrogance.

    State: Nov. 2009 Nov. 2012

    Florida 11.2% 8.7%
    Oregon 10.9 8.7
    Illinois 11.2 8.8
    Conn. 8.9 8.9
    NY 8.8 8.9
    Georgia 10.5 9.0
    South Carolina 12.0 9.1
    Mississippi 10.5 9.2
    Michigan 14.0 9.3
    North Carolina 11.1 9.6
    New Jersey 9.6 9.8
    California 12.2 10.2
    Rhode Island 11.7 10.5
    Nevada 13.0 11.8

    West Virginia 8.4 7.6

  11. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Two points —

    1. If you’re going to cite statistics, please post a direct link for where those statistics are available.

    2. Let’s not get too far afield from the subject of this blog: Coal.

    Thanks, Ken.

  12. Bo Webb says:

    Chuck, excellent post. The coal industry does say there is 100 years of coal left, but I’ve never heard them say, “in West Virginia”. Raney is a sneaky one with words. He might say there is a hundred years left if they were allowed to mine it, but I think we all know what that means.

  13. blue canary says:

    I was interested in Ambrose’s statement as well so I did a bit of quick digging. 10 most educated states based on percent of population with of bachelor’s degrees are Minnesota, New York, New Hampshire, Virginia, New Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut, Colorado, Maryland and Massachusetts. All of which went for Obama, as Sean indicated.

    However, the 10 states most reliant on food stamps are South Carolina, Maine, West Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Tennessee, Oregon, and Mississippi. None of these are among the most-educated states, four are among the five least educated states (LA, KY, MS, WV), and six of them went for Romney. So I think it’s safe to say that Ambrose is incorrect in his statement that the most-educated states are the most reliant on food stamps. (I can’t say one way or the other about welfare, but my initial look into it seems to indicate that, with the exception of New York, welfare rates between most and least educated states are fairly similar.)

    Sources: USDA (via http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/13/10-states-with-the-greatest-food-stamps_n_860233.html) and http://www.foxbusiness.com/personal-finance/2012/10/15/americas-best-and-worst-educated-states/

  14. Bo Webb says:

    Okay Ken, I did say us bureau of labor stats but here is the link also.

    We’re are having a decent dialogue finding common ground, why do you feel a need to scold us for that? This is about Coal Ken.

  15. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    The Bureau of Labor Statistics site is huge, with tons and tons of data. It’s not unreasonable to ask you to post the specific link where you got your data, so that other readers can know exactly what you’re referring to. Posting links encourages everyone to share information.

    My concern is that it’s very easy for a discussion like this to go way off track into an argument about education and welfare policy, which is not what this blog is about.

    Everyone needs to be sure to focus.


  16. Sean says:

    My reasoning for posting the educated/uneducated information is to provoke the thought: Does the coal companies prey on the uneducated and uninformed? To me the answer is yes. These same states are also likely to have poeple that hang on every word that Fox News and Rush throw out there because it is easier to recite that garbage than to research things on your own. Look what happened here. Someone (me) threw out some info and with that other information was researched.
    Don’t get me wrong I feel for the families. I grew up in Southern WV and have family members underground every day.

  17. Sean says:

    Can the Coal Lobbyist and cheerleaders answer this question: If the Coal industry is so good for the state and it’s people, then why is WV and Ky, just to name a few, always listed as the most uneducated, poorest, fattest, unhealthiest, highest death rate, etc.?

  18. Al Justice says:

    A: The whole economic/theoretical environment surrounding the mythical war on coal is just markets manipulating said environment for their own economic purposes.


    B: The coal fields dang well better diversify their economies.

    You decide. American voters just did.

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