Across Appalachia, there is a widespread perception that a war is being fought — a war for the coal industry’s future viability.
Prior to last week’s election, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney made the “War on Coal” central to his campaign against President Barack Obama. Billboards across coal-producing areas in key states, such as Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania, urged voters to “stop Obama’s war on coal,” presumably by voting to send his rival to the White House.
War of words?
For the past two years, coal-friendly groups such as Coal Mining Our Future and Friends of Coal have sponsored giant rallies in Kentucky, Virginia and Washington D.C., where speakers and supporters alike painted Obama and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson as enemies bent on destroying the livelihood of coal miners.
Obama and Jackson also figure prominently as the villains in the “Count on Coal” campaign, created and funded by the National Mining Association. Fact sheets on the group’s website have titles that include “The EPA Misery Index” and “President Obama’s EPA: Costing Consumers and the Economy.” And prior to the Nov. 6 election, the group produced a commercial touting the benefits of both coal and electing Romney president.
A dangerous diversion?
Others, however, say that policies enacted and proposed by Obama and the EPA have had very little to do with the recent decline in coal. In July, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy cited an analysis by the Energy Information Administration, showing there would be very little change in future coal production, even greenhouse gas and mercury emission standards.
Environmental regulations are not killing the coal industry, the Center says in its report. The depletion of easy-to-mine coal seams and the glut of cheap natural gas due to hydraulic fracking are.
“The reality is that even without greenhouse gas or mercury regulations, coal production in Central Appalachia is going to dramatically decline,” Sean O’Leary wrote in the report. “Repealing environmental regulations won’t make the remaining coal seams in West Virginia any thicker or easier to mine, and it won’t stop power plants from converting to natural gas. To ignore this reality, and to act as if stopping the EPA will save the coal industry in West Virginia, is shortsighted and dangerous to the state’s future.”
Casualties of war
But in a region slammed by numerous waves of layoffs this year, Obama and the EPA appear to make an easy target. In West Virginia, as The Economist reported in July, “coal is king and the EPA is seen as committing regicide. It has withheld permits for coal mines, tightened pollution controls for power plants that use coal, and is in the process of drafting regulations on greenhouse gases.”
As a campaign tactic, the “war on coal” appears to have worked. While Romney’s bid for the White House appears not to have resonated across large parts of America, it did in coal country.
In Kentucky’s fifth congressional district, there were 3,900 more voters than in 2008. Romney improved upon Sen. John McCain’s politically impressive 68.2 percent in the region in 2008, by taking 76.8 percent of the vote this year.
In West Virginia, Romney enjoyed a lead over Obama 14 percent points higher than McCain polled. Obama, meanwhile, failed to win one of the state’s 55 counties, though we won five in 2008.
After election — disarmament?
But while the “war on coal” campaign may have had an effect on votes in Appalachia, the result of the national vote appears to have also had an effect on those behind the campaign. The day after the election, National Mining Association President Hal Quinn made a conciliatory public statement to Obama.
“The National Mining Association (NMA) extends its congratulations to President Obama upon his reelection,” Quinn said. “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.”