Republicans stoke emotions in vital battleground as miners accuse president and his ‘tree-huggers’ of killing king coal
It’s the afternoon shift change at the Harrison Resources mine, and about 30 miners are heading home after 10 hours shovelling for coal on an exposed hilltop in eastern Ohio. The men are dressed in an unofficial uniform of jeans, T-shirt and hard hat, and they speak in unison, too, when asked about the presidential election, now less than a week away.
“Obama’s done more damage in the last three years than anyone in the last 50,” said Brad Knight. “He and his advisers are a bunch of tree-huggers, east coast and west coast”.
“The way Obama’s handling the coal business,” said Lanny Stephen, “it looks like he’s trying to fade it out.” A third miner, Trent Sigman, chimed in: “They ought to raise the standards in China before they come after us – their standards are much less strict than ours”.
Anger is running high in the coal country of Ohio. With the final countdown to election day under way, front yards in Cadiz, the nearest small town to the mine, are stacked with placards promoting the Romney-Ryan ticket alongside signs saying: “Stop the war on coal – fire Obama”.
The Republicans and their Super Pac supporters have been aggressively stoking emotions within Cadiz and neighbouring mining communities, bombarding the area with TV and radio adverts on the theme of the “war on coal”. The intention is clear: in an election as razor-close as it looks to be in Ohio, a swing towards Mitt Romney in coal country could be enough to tip the entire state – and with it the US presidency – in his favour.
That’s why Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, was in the coal town of Zanesville on Saturday telling a rally that “here in this part of Ohio, we have so much energy, let’s use our coal.”
That’s also why outside lobbying groups with links to energy interests have been hammering the area with adverts accusing Obama of destroying jobs. One such ad, put out by Americans For Prosperity, a group partly funded by the energy billionaire Koch brothers, says that Obama is trying to do away with coal that has provided “opportunities for our children and our communities”.
Another, put out by the American Energy Alliance, accuses the Obama administration of causing coal mines to close all across the country through the imposition of environmental regulations. “The president and his Washington cronies have declared war on affordable energy and American jobs,” the soundtrack says.
A similar strategy is being pursued throughout the Appalachian coal areas. A new advert implying that Obama was responsible for the imminent closure or conversion of 22 coal facilities in Pennsylvania was just launched on the TV screens of that state’s coal communities this week.
In 2008, Obama won seven out of the 18 Ohio counties that produce coal – an achievement that surpassed the record of any of his Democratic predecessors. In Harrison county, which covers Cadiz and the Resources mine, Obama polled 47% four years ago to John McCain’s 50%, a near-parity that reflected a strong Democratic tradition in the locality strengthened by a vibrant trade union membership among coal miners and steel workers.
Romney’s challenge is to beat back Obama’s showing in the region on 6 November. Hence the focus of the Republican campaign on the new Environmental Protection Agency regulations introduced in 2010 by the
The regulations are designed to reduce pollution and global warming emissions from coal-fired power plants, and to limit the damage to rivers and scenery caused by mountaintop mining, or surface mining as locals prefer to call it: the crude technique of blasting out hundreds of feet of hillside to reach seams of coal. The method is heavily used in the Appalachian coal areas that cross Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Some of the new regulations have already been put on hold as a result of legal challenges. Local coal mines and coal-burning power plants are also facing fierce competition from natural gas production that is booming in Appalachia as a result of the advent of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
But the Romney campaign has glossed over those inconvenient truths, blaming recent closures of coal-fired stations entirely on Obama’s fetish for regulation. There are signs that the strategy might be working.
For the first time since 1972 the United Mine Workers of America has decided not to endorse a presidential candidate this year, having backed Obama in 2008. In Cadiz, the mantra of the “war on coal” appears also to be enjoying some purchase.
Ed Sobolawski, a retired steel worker, has voted as a Democrat all his adult life. This year though, for the first time, he is having doubts.
“To tell you the truth, I haven’t decided what I’m going to vote. I keep switching back and forth,” he said.
We meet in a barn on the outskirts of Cadiz where Sobolawski is having an annual “fry” with friends from the neighbourhood. A group of about 10 men – mainly retired coal and steel workers – have assembled to eat side bacon, drink moonshine that one of them procured on the black market in Kentucky, chew on chewing tobacco and talk about the much-vaunted war on coal.
“I feel bad for the coal miners. So many are losing their jobs. Kids round here don’t stick around – they all leave the area to find work,” he said.
Among the lunch gatherers is Bill Spiker, who used to be chief executive of a local coal mine. He says he is sympathetic to the idea that mining has to be regulated – he remembers in his youth how the open strip mines around here tore up huge swathes of countryside without any attempt to reclaim it; and he approves of the federal government’s insistence on returning spent mines to something approximating a natural condition.
But he argues that Obama has taken the regulations too far. “He’s regulated the coal industry just about out of existence. He doesn’t like the coal industry so he’s regulating it to death,” Spiker said.
There’s a common sentiment that connects the mine workers of the Resources mine and the retired friends gathered at their annual fry: they all feel got at. Their way of life is under siege, as they see it, from tree-hugging environmentalists and coastal do-gooders, with Obama cast in the role of regulator-in-chief.
That sense of beleaguerment is being put to powerful political use by Mitt Romney, backed by his supporters in the coal industry. Lost in the argument is the fact that the number of workers employed in the coal mining industry, contrary to the message being delivered locally, has actually gone up since 2008, from 77,000 to 82,000.
Lost, too, is Obama’s attempt to promote new technologies behind clean coal, and Romney’s own record of flip-flopping on the issue. As governor of Massachusetts he insisted on a coal-burning power station abiding by strict emissions rules, saying: “”I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people, and that plant kills people.”
Lost, above, all is any talk about climate change and the long-term need to reduce emissions caused by non-clean coal. Back at the coal mine, Trent Sigman said emphatically that he doesn’t believe in global warming: “It’s just something that occurs naturally over so many years, so they are using that for political reasons.”
The group of miners around him nodded in agreement.