Coal Tattoo

We continue to see some fascinating statements from coal industry officials in the wake of last week’s strong re-election victory for President Obama. For example, here’s something from the latest Associated Press dispatch out of Kentucky:

Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said voters wanted to send a message to Obama.

“A lot of his disfavor here is connected directly to his anti-coal policies,” Bissett said. “It is our hope that this message was heard by the president and that perhaps he changes his position.”

It’s that last part that is especially interesting:

It is our hope that this message was heard by the president and that perhaps he changes his position.

Am I the only one having a hard time understanding what Bill Bissett is talking about here? Bill is focused — like the AP story he’s quoted in — on just one House of Representatives race in Kentucky, to the exclusion of everything else that happened last Tuesday when the nation went to the polls.

We’ve already mentioned here on Coal Tattoo and in the Gazette print edition that the mining industry’s “War on Coal” candidates lost six key Senate races around the country. You don’t hear the industry and its publicists saying much about those races now.

What else do the election returns tell us about the coal country vote?

Well, it’s certainly true that if you look at the map and at coal production figures, Republican Mitt Romney did well in states that mine a lot of coal. He carried the vote in 18 of the nation’s 25 coal-producing states, including Wyoming, West Virginia and Kentucky, the big 3 that account for roughly 62 percent of the nation’s 2011 coal production. And across the board, Gov. Romney got 154 electoral votes — about two-thirds of his total — from coal-producing states.

But if you look more closely, the picture is more mixed.  Take the nation’s top dozen coal-producing states: Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Montana, Texas, Indiana, Illinois, North Dakota, Ohio, Colorado, and Virginia. Last year, those 12 states accounted for 92 percent of all U.S. coal production. Five of them — Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Colorado, and Virginia — went for President Obama. That’s a total of 80 electoral votes right there. Compare that to Gov. Romney’s victories in seven of the top dozen coal states, and he gathered 71 electoral votes. And more than half of those came with the 38 electoral votes he got from Texas.

Wait, you’re saying … Obama lost the coal-producing areas of all of those states he won. And you’re right. As we’ve reported before, President Obama won only three of the top 25 coal-producing counties in the nation. The point is, the coal vote in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Colorado and Virginia just simply wasn’t big enough to carry Romney in larger states with more diverse populations and more diverse economies. Writing for the American Spectator, Debra McCown explained the Virginia results this way:

While the coal issue drove higher Republican voter turnout and percentages in Virginia coal country, it wasn’t nearly enough to change Tuesday’s election outcome in the state.

According to unofficial vote totals released by the Virginia State Board of Elections after midnight, President Barack Obama had won the state with 50 percent of the vote to challenger Mitt Romney’s 48 percent.

Virginia, a swing state that wasn’t called until hours after Obama’s victory was announced, had faced a constant bombardment from both sides with ads and campaign events.

The large but largely rural region of Southwest Virginia, which relies on coal mining as a key economic driver, had received a lot of attention from the Romney-Ryan campaign with visits in the weeks leading up to the election.

The strategy, supporters said, was to drive higher turnout in areas with strong support, in hopes of bringing swing state Virginia back to the Republican side of the election equation this year. But it wasn’t enough.

A coal miner cheers as 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)

One of the stories that’s getting a lot of attention in the wake of the presidential outcome is the growing diversity and changing makeup of the American electorate.  The Associated Press explained it this way:

The 2012 elections drove home trends that have been embedded in the fine print of birth and death rates, immigration statistics and census charts for years.

America is rapidly getting more diverse, and, more gradually, so is its electorate.

Nonwhites made up 28 percent of the electorate this year, compared with 20 percent in 2000. Much of that growth is coming from Hispanics.

The trend has worked to the advantage of President Barack Obama two elections in a row now and is not lost on Republicans poring over the details of Tuesday’s results.

But you have to wonder if some of the changes in the American electorate, changes to the energy industry itself, and the actual results of the “War on Coal” election campaign by mining interests are not still being lost on the coal industry and on coalfield political leaders. Thinking about this reminds me of a great line that Vicki Smith had in her thoughtful examination of the industry’s election efforts, when she wrote:

The war on coal is a sound bite and a headline, perpetuated by pundits, power companies and public relations consultants who have crafted a neat label for a complex set of realities, one that compels people to choose sides.

It’s easier to call the geologic, market and environmental forces reshaping coal — cheap natural gas, harder-to-mine coal seams, slowing economies — some kind of political or cultural “war” than to acknowledge the world is changing, and leaving some people behind.

One of the things that’s changing in our country is the electorate, and one of the things those changes might be leaving behind is the day when coal miners and coal communities could sway elections. Certainly, if you read between the lines of the way Nate Silver describes what’s ahead in 2016 and 2020, it seems unlikely that pro-coal voters in Ohio and Virginia — let alone West Virginia or Wyoming — are going to be the power behind a GOP White House victory. (As an aside, it’s interesting to note that two of the major coal counties that President Obama carried had significant Native American populations: Big Horn County, Mont., is 60 percent Native American and McKinley County, New Mexico is 76 percent Native American. The third major coal county that Obama won, Gunnison County, Colo., is more than 8 percent Hispanic)

Coal industry supporters also seem to be among the Romney supporters who are totally shocked by his loss, despite the clear picture painted by the pre-election polling that projected this was the way it was going to turn out. Part of this is normal. It’s human nature to have a hard time admitting defeat. But this is also amplified by the echo chamber of today’s media landscape, where someone can easily go through life without reading, watching, or listening to an opinion — much less a set of facts — that don’t match their own world view. But, it’s also a function of the way Americans live today, isolated in their own neighborhoods with like-minded people. My friend Bill Bishop wrote about this phenomenon in his book, “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart,” and I asked him if that was part of what was at work here:

What we’re seeing is that everyone is in the reality creation business — for themselves. They cluster in like-minded groups because it helps the process.  Meanwhile, places become increasingly unlike other places. Incomes diverge. So do educational levels. Suicide rates. Longevity. Attitudes. Political preferences. Regional accents are increasing. Where soldiers come from. 

At the same time, by the way, this makes life in the coalfields — and the impact of regulations aimed at dealing with things like climate change on the coalfields — more and more foreign to the rest of the country:

People don’t know the coalfields. They have no connection. And in every way, their communities are becoming more different from Eastern Kentucky or Southern West Virginia.

Coal industry officials have tried all manner of advertising campaigns to get the general American public to support coal by reminding them a large chunk of their electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. But the connection to coal just isn’t the same as when many homes and businesses burned coal themselves to keep warm — and the connection will become even harder to make as coal’s share of the electricity market continues to decline.

So let’s face it: The coalfields — at least as they were embodied in American politics this cycle by the “War on Coal” campaign — lost the election. But you wouldn’t know it by the way coalfield political leaders and the mining industry are reacting.

Jim Bruggers, environmental reporter for the Courier-Journal in Louisville, had a story this weekend that was headlined Coal interests hope for a break in Obama’s second term:

Despite a scathing campaign that pilloried him for waging a “war on coal,” industry and government officials say they are guardedly hopeful that President Obama is ready take a more lenient approach after winning a second term.

Kentucky, the third largest coal-producing state, produced a 61 percent to 38 percent win for Repbulican candidate Mitt Romney, who promised to loosen environmental regulations in an industry that faces new and stiff competition from cheaper natural gas.

In Pike County, coal “was the only issue and it was dominant,” said Democrat Wayne Rutherford, judge executive for Pike County, in the heart of the state’s eastern Kentucky coal fields, where Romney won 3:1. “There are plenty of concerns, but this is our life blood.”

The story continued:

State Rep. Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook and House majority floor leader, said he intends to write the president, requesting a meeting “to discuss the future of the coal industry and the need for a national energy policy in which coal must play a vital role.”

So, if I understand this all correctly, the coal industry waged a vicious — and false — negative campaign alleging that the coal industry was being destroyed by President Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and now that these tactics didn’t work, the coal industry thinks that the president should come meet with them and reverse his policies? Or at least, as Sen. Joe Manchin suggested, President Obama needs to embark on a “healing tour” of the nation, starting with West Virginia, where Sen. Manchin won his Senate seat in part by blasting the Obama “War on Coal” and in part by sending the message that public policy disagreements should be settled with guns?

Isn’t this just continuing the industry’s divorced-from-reality mindset that would ignore climate change, the negative impacts of mining coal on miners and the communities where they live, and the huge hidden costs of burning coal on public health? Wouldn’t an approach that would be more likely to succeed be to admit failure — to acknowledge that the industry lost, and to offer to come to the table and hear out not just President Obama, but coalfield residents who worry about their health, mine workers who don’t want to get blown up or die of black lung, scientists who warn that coal’s a major player in driving the devastating impacts of climate change, and experts who project that Central Appalachia coal’s in for a huge decline in coming years?

It will be interesting to see what United Mine Workers of American President Cecil Roberts eventually says about the election results, beyond his short statement congratulating President Obama and Vice President Biden and noting that “they laid out a vision for America’s future that the majority of our fellow citizens believe is the right path for our nation.” The UMWA and Roberts have tried to begin providing their members with better information about what’s causing coal’s decline, but as we’ve discussed here before, the union walks a tightrope on these issues, so much so that they declined to endorse a candidate in the presidential race. What approach will Cecil Roberts take now to advance the interests of his union’s members and the communities where they work and live?

Environmental groups are certainly making it well known that their side, so to speak, won the election. They’re calling President Obama’s re-election a mandate for action on all variety of energy issues like climate change and mountaintop removal. Truth be told, though, the president’s agenda for tougher regulation of coal has always been much more moderate than it’s been depicted, and his plans for moving forward on these issues are anything but clear. But in wondering if they can turn an electoral defeat into a policy victory, coal company officials — and especially coal miners — might do well to note that only one of the major environmental groups, the Sierra Club, is talking at all about helping coalfield economies in the wake of President Obama’s re-election. Do miners and their advocates want to find common ground on facing the future, just keep fighting to maintain the status quo, or engage in silly exercises like petitioning to secede from the union?

If the coal industry has good arguments and sound ideas about dealing with the many challenges facing the coalfields, they can win the day without saying someone has “declared war” on them. Good policy arguments can win out if the discussion is fair and reasoned. Government and industry projections don’t suggest that coal is going away anytime soon, so isn’t it time for the policy debate to stop being driven by slogans about that sort of result, and focus instead on reducing coal’s very real impacts on people and the planet?