CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Bobby Brock is keeping the promise he made to his family never to work in a coal mine. Many of his kinfolk have eked out a dangerous but steady living a mile underground in the darkness and chill, and Mr. Brock, who lost his uncle in the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster, proudly defends their honor.
“Every time you flip a light switch, thank a miner,” he says.
Mr. Brock, 48, who lives in Beckley, W.Va., in the heart of the state’s southern coalfields, is like many others here — angry at what he sees as a government in Washington determined to take away not only his livelihood but erode, with regulations and greed, a hardscrabble culture that has held families and mountain communities together for decades.
“Miners spend every day 6 inches from hell, and they do it for the love of their family and making a better way for them. Ain’t that part of the American dream? Not if Obama has anything to do with it,” Mr. Brock argues. “I do not respect him or his party for what they are doing to this state.”
Others who monitor policy and state politics are reluctant to lay all the industry’s woes at the feet of the president, although it is clear President Obama’s energy policies have not helped him with Mountain State voters. Increasing environmental regulations and the call for “clean coal” — a part of the Democratic platform at this month’s party convention in Charlotte, N.C. — have made this unfriendly electoral territory for Mr. Obama.
The problems, which are presenting a target of opportunity for Republican challenger Mitt Romney in swing states such as Ohio and Virginia, were underscored again Tuesday with the announcement by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources that it was cutting production by 16 million tons, eliminating 1,200 jobs and immediately shutting down eight mines in West Virginia, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Saying the moves reflect in part the difficult economy and in part a shift by customers to cheaper natural gas, Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield said in a statement, “The elimination of jobs on this scale is something I take very seriously. Unfortunately, we think we have to do it to set the company on the right foot going forward.”
As the Alpha cutbacks show, coal’s competitiveness has waned as natural gas prices have fallen and export demand drops as China’s economy cools. And the tumble for coal that is not projected to stop, according to an economic report released in September by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. The report suggests that coal jobs are up for now, according to Executive Director Ted Boettner, but the long-term projections are not good.
“Coal employment actually increased over the last decade, although there are signs of a downturn at present that is likely to continue,” the report concluded.
Said Mr. Boettner: “The jobs are a function of declines in productivity. There’s been a sharp decline in productivity in the last decade and it is expected to further decline into 2035. We think there will be a decline in about 1,200 jobs in 2012. But there are more coal miners employed now than before Obama took office.”
Despite its critical role in the economy here, coal is not the single issue driving the election in 2012, even as biting billboards all along state highways remind visitors that the industry is still king. Mr. Obama lost the state in 2008 and is given little chance again in 2012, even though pro-coal Democrats still do well at the state and local level.
“There are a lot of people in West Virginia who oppose the administration’s energy policy. I think it is not terribly popular in West Virginia on average,” said West Virginia University political scientist Neil Berch. “That is speaking to the state as being not in play in the presidential race, and is leading to interesting situation where conservative Democrats running for re-election for both senator and governor are distancing themselves somewhat from the president.”
Key members of the state Democratic establishment did not attend the Charlotte convention, including Sen. Joe Manchin III, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and longtime Rep. Nick J. Rahall II. West Virginia voters dealt Mr. Obama the most embarrassing day of the 2012 cycle so far, when felon Keith Judd, incarcerated in Texas, won 40.7 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.
Mr. Obama’s coal conundrum isn’t limited to West Virginia — Ohio and Virginia, two states Mr. Obama won in 2008 and would dearly like to hold this year, also have major coal-producing regions and similar complaints about the administration’s regulatory and energy policies regarding coal.
West Virginia, though, is pretty much a lost cause for the president, even if ticket-splitting is likely to be the order of the day Nov. 6.
“Romney is going to win here,” Mr. Berch said. “The two conservative Democrats are going to win the Senate and governor’s races. Voters are making a pretty big distinction between national Democrats and state Democrats.”
How big a role energy policy will impact this election cycle is uncertain. In 2010, voters in coal-producing states such as Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio ousted incumbent members of Congress in favor of Republicans, offering a reminder that the industry still matters in targeted areas.
Ken Green, an energy policy analyst at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, said coal and fossil fuels are regional issues. But they still can have an outsized impact when the industry views its vital issues as threatened. He noted it was coal-state Democrats, not Republicans, who torpedoed Mr. Obama’s “cap-and-trade” plan to limit carbon emissions in his first term. Mr. Obama and national Democrats also have said relatively little on issues such as climate change, in part because of the political costs in energy-producing states.
“They will be silent until after the election, and if they are re-elected they will plunge full speed ahead with coal regulations,” Mr. Green predicted, noting Mr. Obama’s warning shot during his first White House run to make anyone who opened a coal mine go bankrupt.
“I think there is no question about it. They’ve been pretty explicit about putting coal out of business. There has been no one in Obama’s entire administration that has bucked the anti-coal agenda.”
In the meantime, coal miners like Logan Hall vow to continue to mount a grass-roots fight to keep alive an industry they say sustains their very way of life.
Mr. Hall, a father of four from Virgie, Ky., broke his back in a mining accident and was laid up, only to turn his misfortune into a career break when he auditioned for a country music contest and won it.
Now he is living his ultimate dream of playing music for a living and warming up for Southern rock icons such as Lynyrd Skynyrd. He is using his newfound celebrity to write songs to honor his old buddies still toiling in the darkness and trying hard to scrape out a living and support their families.
“Mine work — that’s all we know. You cannot come into eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia or Pennsylvania and find one person that doesn’t work in the coal industry, has a family member who worked in it,” Mr. Hall said.
“I think that we have been forgotten over the last few years. We want to not be forgotten anymore. There is a huge problem and as far as myself, I know the majority of people think that the coal-mining problem has just been lost in the mix. Maybe we can refresh some people’s memory that there’s real people living here.”