An odd thing happened in West Virginia last month. Four out of ten Democratic primary voters in the state would rather nominate a felon sitting in a Texan jail than Barack Obama for their party’s presidential nomination. In ten counties, the criminal won.
The president isn’t very popular in the Mountain State. He lost West Virginia to Hillary Clinton during the Democratic Party’s primary four years ago and to John McCain in the 2008 general election. Republicans think they know why — Obama is perceived as an enemy of coal.
West Virginia is the largest coal producer east of the Mississippi River and accounts for one tenth of the nation’s production. 30,000 West Virginians are employed by the industry. Many more depend on it indirectly.
Coal country stretches across critical battleground states including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The president is virtually tied with his Republican challenger Mitt Romney in all of them, according to preelection polls.
Including West Virginia, the four coal states account for 56 electoral votes in November’s election, more than enough to tip the balance in either candidate’s favor.
When he was still a senator in 2008, Obama infamously declared himself hostile to coal. He predicted that under his administration, “if someone wants to build a coal power plant, they can, it’s just that it will bankrupt them because they are going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.”
As president, Obama failed to enact the sort of cap-and-trade legislation that would have taxed carbon emissions but constructing new coal plants has become virtually impossible nevertheless as a result of new environmental standards.
Politico reports that Republicans have stoked the fires by accusing the president’s Environmental Protection Agency of making it harder to mine or burn coal. When Vice President Joe Biden visited Ohio last week, they made sure coal turned up seemingly everywhere in protests, email blasts and Internet campaign videos.
Biden, in 2007, described air pollution from coal as a deadlier menace to Americans than terrorism.
The greater threat to coal may not in fact come from government but the competition. The natural gas industry is booming in American Rust Belt states where the coal workforce has shrunk by 90 percent in the last forty years.
J. Ross Stewart, an analyst for the geostrategic consultancy Wikistrat, told the Atlantic Sentinel in March that small coal towns and family farms across the area that stretches from Indiana to eastern New York to western Kentucky could be “reinvented and resurrected” by the gas industry, “pumping money into economies dormant for decades and triggering a wider American rebound.”
Improvements in drilling techniques have the potential of transforming the American energy landscape, he said, by unlocking vast shale gas and oil reserves.
Coal, meanwhile, is turning to exports. There is a huge market in China. Coal fuels almost 80 percent of that country’s electricity but last year, less than 7 percent of American coal exports left the country via western ports. Plans are underway to build six major new port facilities in the states of Oregon and Washington to ship more coal across the Pacific. Environmentalists are fighting those plans though.
The president faces a familiar dilemma — side with green activists at the risk of alienating working-class voters or prioritize jobs at the expense of the environment.
What makes the question more complicated is that the Democratic Party base is divided. Environmentalists, typically young, urban and well educated, could decide to stay home in November. Labor unions, enthusiastic about the prospect of expanding domestic energy production, are a major source for fundraising for the president’s reelection campaign.
Republicans are only too happy to keep the item on the agenda. Mitt Romney will need those blue-collar votes in Ohio and Pennsylvania to win.