In July, the Murray Energy Corporation announced that it would be closing an Ohio coal mine. Fifty-six people were still working at the mine, which had employed 239 in its heyday. Some of the employees would be transferred to other positions in the company, but that meant new people wouldn’t be hired to fill those positions.
“President Obama is responsible entirely for the closure of that mine and the loss of those jobs,” Murray Energy Corporation’s founder and CEO, Robert Murray, a major Republican donor, told CNN in August.
“The many regulations that he and his radical appointees and the U.S. EPA have put on the use of coal . . . have closed 175 power plants,” Murray added.
In the 2008 campaign, Obama told the San Francisco Chronicle that the “notion of no coal . . . is an illusion,” but he added that he favored a cap-and-trade system. “So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can,” Obama continued. “It’s just that it will bankrupt them because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.” In 2007, Joe Biden told Grist.org, “I don’t think there’s much of a role for clean coal in energy independence” in the United States — though he added that he favored cleaning up China’s coal plants.
Under the Obama administration, coal has faced a punishing regulatory environment. “I think the Obama administration should be ashamed for putting out of work these middle-class coal miners in the state of Ohio and throughout the country,” says Josh Mandel, Ohio state treasurer and Republican Senate candidate. “These coal miners and their families live in some of the poorest counties in America, and the Obama war on coal is killing jobs in parts of America that can least afford it.”
The Obama administration has imposed regulations on the coal industry “that have huge economic costs, but questionable and minimal environmental benefits,” says Nicolas Loris, an energy-policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.“The administration has made the construction of new coal-powered utility plants exceedingly difficult, if not almost impossible, and it has shut down mines or made it much more difficult to keep them open.”
“The Obama administration has done everything it possibly can to destroy the American coal industry,” says Mike Carey, chairman of the Ohio Coal Association and vice president of government affairs at the Murray Energy Corporation. “Under Obama’s leadership, we have gone from producing 1.2 billion tons to somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 million tons. It’s disingenuous at best for Obama to say that he supports the coal industry when we have lost one-third of our production.”
Now Republicans are hoping that coal workers will look at what is happening to their industry and vote for Romney — and Mandel and other Republican Senate and House candidates — in November. When Alpha Natural Resources announced last week that it was laying off 1,200 employees, the Romney campaign swung into action. “For four years, President Obama has waged a war on coal that has devastated the middle class and American workers,” said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams. “Today’s news that the president’s policies are killing another 1,200 jobs in states like Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania is just the latest evidence President Obama hasn’t delivered for middle-class families.” Meanwhile, the Romney campaign released two ads featuring Romney’s approach to coal.
The Republican National Committee, too, is making the case for Romney’s coal policies. RNC press secretary Kirsten Kukowski points out that coal is a significant part of the economy “in Ohio, Pennsylvania, parts of Virginia, even parts of Colorado.”
“It’s a narrow group of voters you’re looking at it,” she says. “But in those areas, it’s a big deal because it affects entire communities. It’s really their whole livelihood.” People who work in the coal industry — and their family and friends — could well become single-issue voters this year.
In the Democratic primaries, there were signals that some Democrats have had enough of Obama’s coal policies. In West Virginia, where the coal industry is huge, 42 percent of Democrats chose felon Keith Judd over Obama in the primary. In many Pennsylvania counties, more than 30 percent of Democrats voted for candidates other than Obama or left the presidential line blank, according to an analysis by Politics PA.
“I hear about it all the time, especially in Appalachian Ohio,” Mandel says of discontent with the administration’s coal policy. “In Ohio, coal equals jobs, and over 80 percent of our economy is powered by coal. There are direct coal jobs in eastern and southeastern Ohio, but there are also a ton of manufacturing jobs throughout the state that are made possible by affordable, reliable, dependable coal energy. The Obama war on coal is putting folks out of work.”
And the voters understand that. “When we started this campaign, we were losing in southeastern and eastern Ohio — Appalachian Ohio,” Mandel says. “Now we’re winning there, and a lot of it is based on energy issues.”
One of the regulations that has hurt the industry most, according to Heritage’s Loris, is the MACT (Maximum Achievable Control Technology) Standards, which relate to mercury and other chemicals. “This one regulation, combined with the cross-state air-pollution rule, has the potential to knock out anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of the electricity generated by coal power plants,” Loris says. The cross-state air-pollution rule, he explained in a paper earlier this year, “targets pollution that crosses state boundaries, and it aims to reduce sulfur dioxide 73 percent below 2005 levels and nitrous oxide 54 percent below 2005 levels by 2014.” What is critical to note is that “these costs come with little added environmental benefit,” Loris adds. “The EPA is ignoring the remarkable achievements in reducing nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions over the past four decades. . . . The industry has reached a threshold where the additional emissions reductions are marginal and do not justify the costs.”
Jason Hayes, communications director for the American Coal Council, emphasizes that point. “The industry over the past few decades has invested over $100 billion in cleaning up emissions, and it’s already been effective,” he says. “All of the important noxious pollutants have decreased markedly over the last 30 to 40 years, at the same time that we’ve been using more and more coal, and the expectation is that we’re going to continue investing.” In the next ten years, the industry anticipates spending “another $100 billion cleaning up and building newer, more efficient power plants, and we’re doing all of this on top of dealing with all the other things.”
“The environmental benefits that we’re hearing about are questionable,” Hayes adds. “The job losses are real. They’re happening right now.”