Coal Tattoo

The ‘dominant narrative’ about coal’s decline

It was interesting to watch this piece from VICE News about the campaign for West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District, especially the footage of this comment from longtime Rep. Nick J. Rahall:

Coal is everything to our state of West Virginia … I have always stood for coal, am standing for coal, and will always stand for coal … Yeah, coal is in a slump now. But coal is going to come back.

I’d like to believe that Rep. Rahall knows better, that he understands well that the Obama administration isn’t the only pressure on Southern West Virginia coal, and that regardless of whether he and other opponents win their fight with the U.S. EPA, another boom in our southern coalfields simply isn’t just around the corner  (see also here).

The piece goes on to report:

… The dominant narrative around here is that Obama’s stringent regulations — thus his “war on coal” —  are to blame for the loss of coal mining jobs.

It does include this further context:

In reality, the downturn is largely due to dwindling reserves, the rise of natural gas, and the automation of the mining industry, which has replaced workers with machines.

But that’s just a mention, almost in passing, in a nearly 15-minute piece that is mostly about this “dominant narrative.” So you have to wonder, why is the “war on coal” the dominant narrative. Of course, it’s partly because of the huge advertising campaign from the mining industry. But it’s also because that’s the way the national and local media keep framing things.

There’s another example out there today in this Associated Press dispatch:

LOGAN, W.Va. (AP) — The president of the West Virginia Coal Association reports a decrease in the number of coal mining sites in the state.

Bill Raney says the state has 96 active mining sites, down from 152 in 2013 and 184 in 2012. Media outlets report that Raney attributes the decline to uncertainty created by President Barack Obama’s administration.

Raney also says the industry is seeing a shift in production from mines in southern West Virginia to northern West Virginia. He attributes that to the scrubber technology added to northern power plants during the 1990s which enabled them to burn high-sulfur coal found in northern West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

That story, apparently picked up from the Logan Banner and WVOW-FM in Logan, will likely run in every paper in West Virginia, over the weekend before Tuesday’s general election.  And look at that sentence I put in bold type:

Media outlets report that Raney attributes the decline to uncertainty created by President Barack Obama’s administration.

Really, Associated Press? The AP didn’t even really quote Bill Raney accurately. here’s the full quote from the Banner story:

There’s a whole lot of reasons for that, but predominantly it’s the uncertainty created by this administration,” Raney told WVOW radio in Logan. “We dealt for several years with the fact you couldn’t get federal permits, now they’ve taken on the power plants and put out these rules on greenhouse gas which have no technology to control.”

Even Bill Raney knows that things aren’t as simple as the “dominant narrative” the politicians keep talking about. Here’s something from a story I did back in 2012, before President Obama was re-elected:

“There’s not any surprise in this,” Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said in an August interview. “You’re talking about a declining reserve anyway. We mined the low-hanging fruit a long time ago.”

If journalists wonder why the “war on coal” is the dominant narrative, they might find part of the answer in the mirror.