FRANKFORT, Ky. — The coal industry is shedding thousands of jobs and facing the government’s most severe crackdown on carbon emissions yet. But king coal still flexes its political muscle in Kentucky and West Virginia, where Republicans and even Democrats try to out-coal one another by cozying up to the industry and slamming President Barack Obama.
In other coal-producing areas such as Ohio and Virginia, Democrats have been able to win even with the industry against them. That’s not an option for politicians in the heart of Appalachia.
Many people here still cling to coal as a source of work and cultural pride, so almost everyone running for office seeks the mantle of coal savior, or at least defender.
Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Republican up for re-election, chided his Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, for accepting money from “anti-coal activists,” including a group that worked closely with the Obama administration on the regulations. Grimes counters that McConnell and his super PAC have taken campaign money from a group whose goals include reducing the number of coal-fired power plants in Texas.
After the new emissions rules were announced June 2, she took out radio and newspaper ads to criticize Obama’s “war on coal.” West Virginia senate candidate Natalie Tennant, also a Democrat, called the new rules “reckless and unrealistic” during a trip to southern coalfields. She faces Republican Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, who is favored to replace retiring Democrat Jay Rockefeller.
For many, their identity is tied to the industry.
“My little town is dying. Do you think I’m a fool and going to support somebody that doesn’t support coal?” said David Kennedy, a Harlan County magistrate, business owner and Grimes supporter. “I had a couple of car washes and now I just got one. I depend on these coal miners.”
West Virginia, the second biggest coal producer nationally after Wyoming, watched its production drop to 129.5 million tons in 2012, a 22 percent dive over four years. As of last year, about 20,000 people work in West Virginia coal mining.
Only 29 of Kentucky’s 120 counties mine coal, and production dropped 16 percent in 2012 to 91.4 million tons, the lowest level since 1965.
A bipartisan national majority of Americans support limiting greenhouse gas emissions, which scientists blame for climate change, according to a Washington Post/ ABC News poll released Monday.
Fifty-seven percent of Republicans and 79 percent of Democrats support state-level limits on greenhouse gas emissions, and 70 percent of all Americans say the federal government should limit greenhouse gases from power plants.
Grimes’ campaign keeps a close eye on the news, looking for opportunities to laud her coal stance. When Stanford University’s president announced the school was divesting its $18 billion endowment of stock in coal companies, Grimes wrote him a letter saying the decision would “push tens of thousands of one’s own countrymen to the brink of poverty, and perhaps beyond.”