Monday, October 22, 2012

AP takes a long look at 'the war on coal,' the facts and the future beyond the election-season slogan

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator
Lisa Jackson, Sen. Joe Manchin, President Obama
and United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts
are targets of Senate challenger John Raese. (AP)
According to Central Appalachian coal operators, and many of the miners who work for them, there's a war on in America, and electing a new president will end it, writes Vicki Smith, West Virginia reporter for The Associated Press, in a 2,500-word story that compares the political rhetoric to the facts and looks to the future.

"The war on coal is a sound bite and headline, perpetuated by pundits, power companies and public relations consultants who have crafted a neat label for a complex set of realities, one that compels people to choose sides," Smith writes. "It’s easier to call the geologic, market and environmental forces reshaping coal — cheap natural gas, harder-to-mine coal seams, slowing economies — some kind of political or cultural 'war' than to acknowledge the world is changing, and leaving some people behind."

Noting that there was a real war over coal in West Virginia almost 100 years ago, when federal troops put down rebellious miners, Smith writes, "To hear the industry tell it, those who remain are an endangered species in the cross-hairs of overzealous environmental regulators directly responsible for wiping out thousands of jobs. But in war, casualties are often inflated. The numbers are eye-catching, but the details are lost." Smith notes that many miners find jobs at other mines, and U.S. Department of Labor data show that coal jobs have grown in Central Appalachia since 2008, with consistent gains in West Virginia and southwest Virginia, and ups and downs in Kentucky.

But the prospect of a second term for President Obama, whose administration has tried to be tougher on coal, has set off alarm bells in the region. Coal executives appear to have convinced miners they are fighting for their way of life, and "war sells because fear sells," Smith writes. Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen told Smith that wars on anything -- coal, women, drugs -- are emotionally charged metaphors that take over political discourse. For politicians, war is about "destroying the opposition so they can get the power back. For media, it's about grabbing the attention of an easily distracted public. The more polarizing the voices, the more entertaining the story." But she says such language contributes nothing to real understanding, and "has a corrosive effect on the human spirit."

The election aside, the language has been somewhat softer. Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett brought with him from West Virginia the "Friends of Coal" campaign, which is promoted by more than 55,000 license plates in a state that also lies in the Illinois Basin coalfield. "Instead of seeing the industry as faceless men in suits, they see the pickups next to them at the supermarket parking lot, the tags instantly identifying the like-minded," Smith reports.

Meanwhile, Mason Adams of The Roanoke Times reported a similar story. Southwest Virginia's coal economy is declining because of "numerous challenges: a less expensive competitor in natural gas; a worldwide slump in coal used in making steel; and rising costs from federal clean air and water regulations." But, Adams writes, in the region's perception, coal has but one enemy: the federal government.

Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette writes, "The Obama administration's moves to more strictly police the mining and burning of coal have been more modest -- and in some ways far less successful -- than they are portrayed by the industry's public relations barrage and by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, according to regulatory experts who have closely followed the issues." (Read more)

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