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Don't blame Obama for coal woes

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Posted: Friday, October 26, 2012 2:00 am | Updated: 3:51 pm, Sat Feb 9, 2013.

No matter how many yard signs you see — no matter how much some people wish and want it to be true — there simply is no “War on Coal.”

At least not one that firing Obama will do anything about.

Coal is in deep trouble, don't get me wrong, but its issues can't be fixed by voting out Obama because the industry's problems are not caused by regulation.

Last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a grand total of 0.2 percent of all layoffs were the result of governmental regulations, as measured by claims for unemployment insurance. And the Associated Press surveyed coal-fired power plants and found not a single one offered that new regulations were to blame for plant closures.

Yet those are just facts, which you can pick and choose whether to believe these days. And so these red and black signs are quite popular in our area, particularly in Greene County, and are also common sights in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.

But, as the Associated Press found in a lengthy article that ran in Sunday's HeraldStandard.com, the real reasons behind coal's predicament aren't exactly as simple as a seven-word yard sign might make it out to be:

“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. 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.”

(And in case you think this is some liberal hit job on the coal industry, the very same article makes the declarative statement two sentences later that “Coal helped build America.” and that miners “helped shape the principles of modern labor law: Pay by the hour. A week that lasts five days, not seven. Black men and white men paid the same.” Not exactly Greenpeace talking points.)

So while there are plenty of forces conspiring to step on the neck of the coal industry, they don't begin and end around Obama. Yet the “War on Coal” signs offer one solution: “Fire Obama.”

Here's the dirty little secret that no one who's so proudly stuck one of those signs in their yard will tell you: Even if all government regulation disappeared tomorrow, the coal industry isn't coming back. At least not to what it was. The peak is passed — there're half as many coal jobs nationwide as there were 30 years ago (though, interestingly enough for the “War” believers, coal mining employment today is higher than at any time between 1999 and 2008).

There's simply not the demand there used to be for coal. In August, coal accounted for 38 percent of all U.S. electricity, the lowest level since 1949 when the government began collecting such data, and far from the 50 percent range it had hovered around for decades. And it's trending downward long term, some say closer to 30 percent by decade's end.

Now, you can look at the decline and say, “See, Obama killed coal,” but that would be missing the crucial actor in the real war on coal: natural gas.

As gas grows, it comes at the cost of coal. Cheap, abundant natural gas from the Marcellus shale is easier to get and more cost-effective than coal, meaning more and more power plants are using it over coal. This reality is what is leading to the decline of the industry — not Obama.

To wit, in July, research published in the peer-reviewed Electricity Journal found low natural gas prices had five or six times the impact on coal's decline as new EPA regulations did.

That means, no matter how much you want to blame regulation for the woes, the only way to win the war on coal is to somehow stop the Marcellus shale boom. And, last I checked, Romney isn't proposing to do so.

I understand that Obama makes an easy target. His bluster over coal as a candidate in 2008 is an oft-repeated chorus, but since he took office, Obama has pushed an “all of the above” energy strategy that includes coal and essentially soft-peddled the industry to the point where environmentalists have complained that those regulations he has passed have been toothless. He may not have made things easier on the industry, but to suggest he's actively destroying it is beyond hyperbole.

In reality, the “War on Coal” is an opportunistic effort by those who don't support Obama to manipulate hard-working coal miners and their families into voting against their own interests.

I understand the inclination to hold fast to any side that suggests there's an easy way to combat coal's decline. I live in Greene County; I understand the importance of coal to our region. But as much as our area might like it to be so, there's no easy way to bring back our coal-fired heyday.

No matter what a yard sign might say, electing Mitt Romney won't bring back coal.

If you'd like to fire him, Brandon Szuminsky can be reached at bszuminsky@heraldstandard.com.

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