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Obama’s ‘war on coal’ doesn’t exist

Specious slogans dominate key midterm Senate battles in Appalachia, burying West Virginia coal chemical disaster

June 2, 2014 12:15AM ET

On Monday, President Barack Obama is expected to announce a new Environmental Protection Agency regulation to cut CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants by 30 percent, setting a cap that will require states to trade or shift toward clean energy alternatives. U.S. Senate candidates in pivotal coal-producing Appalachian states, however, have already fired the opening salvo in the next battle over dirty coal.

Rather than advocating clean energy independence, Republican and Democratic candidates alike are doubling down in defense of Big Coal with a wildly inaccurate “war on coal” rallying call, just in time for the midterm elections. Their bogus claim: Overreaching federal regulations are killing coal jobs.

Central Appalachia is a crucible for the midterms, as a recent Washington Post headline (“Why Senate control could hinge on Democratic opposition to the ‘war on coal’”) posited. For Senate hopefuls running in traditionally coal-friendly states such as West Virginia and Kentucky, painting Obama as anti-coal is practically a prerequisite, regardless of party affiliation.

Such pro-coal stances come only five months after the West Virginia coal chemical disaster, which exposed massive regulatory failures and subjected 300,000 Charleston residents to an endless game of drinking-water roulette with 10,000 gallons of toxic contaminants. One might think these candidates would retire the overblown rhetoric, address the region’s mounting health concerns and even offer ideas for Appalachia’s much-needed transition toward a clean energy economy.

But listening to some of the primary victory speeches, you wouldn’t have suspected that January’s disaster, which cost West Virginia more than $60 million, was the state’s fifth such major industrial accident in eight years. Only a few weeks ago, two coal miners died in a violation-riddled mine. Growing evidence suggests that the toxic fallout from mountaintop removal mining might be one of the worst health care emergencies in the nation. And a key climate change study released last month issued another urgent call to combat the primary cause of global warming — “human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuels.”

So let’s call it right: We’re in the throes of a war on coal mining communities and our climate — not on Big Coal.

“For years and years, I’ve listened as the coal companies told our political leaders they’d better not support mine-safety laws, they’d better not support black-lung protections and they’d better not vote for laws to protect our precious water,” third-generation disabled coal miner Carl Shoupe wrote in an op-ed — “Tired of Big Coal telling our pols what to do” — earlier this spring for the Lexington Herald-Leader. 

In Turkey, last month’s coal mining tragedy has resulted in widespread protests against the government, especially when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan implied that such explosions were common, casually drawing a comparison to England’s 19th century coal disasters.

But in Kentucky, West Virginia and even the coal country of Democratic-controlled Illinois, a similar time warp — led by politicians caught between misinformed nostalgia, a failed reality check on the ailing coal industry and the powerful mining lobby — has prevented the region from addressing coal’s indisputable role in climate change (and its untenable health and environmental costs) during election cycles.

West Virginia’s coal chemical disaster notwithstanding, this year’s midterm elections might be the worst worst-case scenario yet. Take the verbal war stewing between U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the senior Republican from Kentucky, and his Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state.

“A vote for my opponent is a vote for a guy who says coal makes you sick,” McConnell said, linking Grimes to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., during his primary victory speech.

Not to be outdone, Grimes shot back. “I don’t agree with the president’s war on coal. I think it’s wrong for Kentucky,” she said during her own victory speech, railing against the Environmental Protection Agency with a fervor that would make a lobbyist with the National Mining Association blush. “It’s on Mitch McConnell’s watch, not mine, that overburdensome regulations have been imposed upon the commonwealth of Kentucky.”

As long as residents’ voices are overpowered by the relentless ‘war on coal’ ads bankrolled by out-of-state coal industry lobby fronts, change must come from the EPA and the White House.

Regardless of whose watch it was, coal country veterans noted the absence of concern for mining safety from either side — and the bad timing of the remarks. The May 20 victory fell on the anniversary of the reckless 2006 Kentucky Darby mine disaster, which the Mine Safety and Health Administration ruled “occurred because the operator did not observe basic mine safety practices.

“As I watched McConnell’s speech last night, I could not help thinking about my grandfather, gasping for his last breath,” wrote Bob Kincaid, a West Virginia–based radio broadcaster and longtime critic of mountaintop removal, in a reference to black lung disease, which still kills three coal miners daily. “Thousands of people in Appalachia have a memory similar to mine,” he added. “McConnell apparently has no such memory.”

And here’s another reality check. As members of Appalachia’s mining communities have noted for years, Kentucky and West Virginia had lost nearly two-thirds of their coal mining jobs long before Obama entered the White House, thanks to heavily mechanized operations and a shift to large-scale strip mining or mountaintop removal mining.

In other words, Obama is not waging a “war on coal.” The front lines have simply shifted to the heartland and the expanding operations in the West. Appalachian coal production will continue to decline in the coming years, but this is because former West Virginia coal barons such as Chris Cline are moving their operations to the cheaper Illinois Basin, where production is booming, and because natural gas fracking operations are on the rise. In fact, coal production remains stable under Obama — projected even to increase by 4 percent in 2014, according to the Energy Information Administration.

But you wouldn’t know that from listening to this year’s candidates. In West Virginia’s U.S. Senate race, facts about the recent chemical spill have been trumped by specious “war on coal” slogans. Both candidates are running against Obama’s energy and environmental policies with a vengeance.

Democratic candidate and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant has vowed to “protect today’s coal jobs from EPA regulations,” while Republican challenger Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, backed by the mining lobby, has prioritized “ending the war on coal.”

Four years ago, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., issued his clarion call for Appalachia and the coal industry to “embrace the future,” adding later that people, not coal, “are West Virginia’s most valuable resource. We must demand to be treated as such.”

Byrd’s call found scant reception in the campaign war rooms, but its sentiment has continued to spread across Appalachia. Kentuckians electrified such hopes for change in 2010 when a regional grassroots movement for “New Power” compelled the East Kentucky Power Cooperative to halt plans to build two coal-burning power plants in Clark County and explore both job-creating energy efficiency programs and renewable energy options.

And in February, one poll found that an astounding 73 percent of West Virginia residents felt the state “has paid too little attention to addressing threats to air and water,” and that “things must change.”

As long as those voices are overpowered by the relentless “war on coal” ads bankrolled by out-of-state coal industry lobby fronts, change must come from the EPA and the White House.

At least, that is, until a new era of candidates in West Virginia, Kentucky and even Illinois finally provides the leadership to speak up about a just transition to “new power” initiatives for clean energy jobs and development during elections and put the worn-out, misleading slogans of the coal wars to rest.

Jeff Biggers is the author of the forthcoming “Damnatio Memoriae,” a play on immigration in Italy, among other works.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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