Campaign Crawlers

Counting on Coal Country

Romney fights for jobs -- and votes -- in an industry at war with Obama’s EPA.

By 10.8.12

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Nearly four thousand people turned out Friday in Abingdon, Virginia, to hear Mitt Romney declare his support for the coal industry, which has been besieged for more than three years by President Obama's Environmental Protection Agency. A giant sign behind the Republican candidate proclaimed "Coal Country Stands With Mitt," and many in the audience wore caps or T-shirts calling for an end to "Obama's War on Coal," a war that has escaped the notice of most Americans outside coal-producing regions like southwest Virginia.

"The head of the EPA has… said that the regulations on burning coal are now so stringent it's virtually impossible to build a new coal-fired [electrical power] plant," Romney said at the Abingdon rally. "Well, I don't believe in putting our coal under the ground forever. I believe we should take advantage of it, put American workers back to work and use a resource that's abundant and cheap and can be burned in a clean way."

The crowd cheered Romney's words, a message that sounds eminently sensible to people whose livelihoods are directly threatened by Obama's policies, but has been given short shrift in the national media, seemingly indifferent to the far-reaching economic consequences of the "green" fanaticism that has dominated EPA since 2009. This extremist ideology is aimed at destroying the American coal industry, as was spelled out explicitly by Obama during his 2008 campaign. He notoriously told the San Francisco Chronicle that, under his planned cap-and-trade agenda to reduce carbon emissions, "if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can. It's just that it will bankrupt them." In making this vow, the then-candidate acknowledged what it would mean: "Under my plan … electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket."

Cap-and-trade legislation passed the House of Representatives during Nancy Pelosi's speakership before stalling in the Senate, but the failure to pass that law hasn't prevented Obama from pursuing his anti-coal agenda by other means, namely the regulatory authority of the EPA. Under the leadership of administrator Lisa Jackson, new rules have forced the closure of several existing coal-fired power plants while making it practically impossible to build new coal plants. This radical environmentalist policy enraged Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers, who said that the regulations represent a "decision by the EPA that we're never going to have another coal-fired facility in the United States that's constructed." For a Democratic president so closely allied with the labor movement, Obama's abandonment of the mine workers is stunning, considering that the head of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, began his career with the UMW.

Even as the EPA's regulatory squeeze of power plants has had the effect of reducing demand for coal, Jackson's agency has suppressed the supply by enacting new clean-water rules that have brought permitting for new surface-mining operations to a screeching halt in Appalachia. As a result, since Obama took office, coal production has fallen by a third, eliminating hundreds of jobs, most recently when Alpha Natural Resources announced it would be forced to lay off 1,200 miners. While stimulus money was squandered on bankrupt "green energy" boondoggles like Solyndra, Obama's anti-coal agenda has destroyed private-sector jobs that were the very definition of "shovel ready."

Obama might shrug off the economic hardship his policies have imposed on those small-town workers he once dismissed as "bitter," clinging to "guns or religion," but perhaps the one job most endangered by the president's war on coal is his own. A strong turnout for Romney in southwest Virginia's coal country could help put the Old Dominion's 13 Electoral College votes out of reach for Obama, and GOP margins in the coal-mining regions of southeast Ohio may prove pivotal in the all-out fight for the Buckeye State's 18 Electoral College votes. But the issue has potential political reach beyond the coal fields, as nearly half of the electrical power supply in the United States (and 90 percent in Ohio) comes from coal-fired plants, making Obama's war on coal a "pocketbook" issue for the many millions of voters who would pay higher electric bills because of the EPA's squeeze.

The potentially decisive impact of the coal issue helps explain Romney's trip to Abingdon last week. The Republican now mentions the importance of coal in every stump speech across the country. Romney also raised the issue during last week's debate: "And by the way, I like coal… people in the coal industry feel like it's getting crushed by your policies." Coal-industry groups are now running ads in Ohio and Virginia, including one by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) that warns "our families struggle [and] jobs disappear" because of "heavy-handed EPA regulations."

There was a time, half a century ago, when Democrats stood firmly on the side of coal miners and enacted programs to help alleviate the cruel poverty that for so long plagued rural Appalachia. Now, under the control of environmentalists, the Democratic Party is the coal miner's worst enemy and threatens Appalachia with a new kind poverty, even crueler for being the result of a deliberate policy. Folks in America's coal towns have not yet lost hope, even as they have been betrayed by the president who famously promised Hope. The end of Obama's war on coal may now be within sight, and the people of Coal Country could cast the deciding votes to end it.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.