WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama have wholeheartedly embraced coal on the campaign trail, despite past statements from Romney and Vice President Joe Biden that pollution from coal-fired power plants kills people.
Coal has become a major issue in the presidential campaign, in part because the coal state of Ohio is among a handful of states that are expected to decide the election. Romney is telling voters that Obama is “waging war on coal,” a cry also taken up by Republicans in the House of Representatives, who are putting out pro-coal bills as a message. Romney pledges to roll back environmental regulations if he’s elected.
But analysts say it’s questionable how much Romney could do to help a coal industry that’s been hurt more by utilities switching to cheap natural gas than by Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
“Coal is being done in by cheap natural gas. There’s no good reason for any utility company to build a new coal power plant right now, with natural gas prices being where they are and where they look like they’re going to be for a long time,” said Andrew Holland, a senior fellow for energy at the nonpartisan American Security Project, a research center. “Even if there were no regulations on coal, I think you’d still be seeing a move toward natural gas.”
Obama, like his challenger, nevertheless has talked up coal during the campaign. He highlighted a vision for the future during his Democratic National Convention speech in which the nation continues to invest in “clean coal” technologies meant to reduce the carbon dioxide impact of burning coal and keep the industry going.
The Obama campaign has run radio ads in Ohio hammering on that theme and portraying Romney as the one who’s really anti-coal. The ads are about Romney’s 2003 effort, as the governor of Massachusetts, against an unpopular coal plant in his state. “I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people,” Romney told the news media at the time. “And that plant, that plant kills people.”
Frank O’Donnell, the president of the environmental advocacy group Clean Air Watch, said he was taken aback to hear the Obama campaign’s ad playing up the coal industry. “I think that ad goes to show you that it’s perhaps only a slight exaggeration to say this election is about swaying the minds of 11 people in Ohio,” he said.
Ohio is among the most crucial prizes in the presidential campaign. The state ranks 10th nationally in coal production and gets 86 percent of its electricity generation from coal. But the battleground states of Virginia and Colorado are significant coal-producing regions as well.
There’s also a lot of talk in the nation’s top coal states – Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Texas – about what a Romney presidency might mean for coal.
Romney brought up to Ohio voters a video of Biden saying in 2007 that pollution from coal-fired power plants is more likely to contribute to the death of an average American than a terrorist attack is. Romney said it showed where the Obama administration really stood.
The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity also has waded into the debate. The group, whose new leader is Mike Duncan of Kentucky, a former Republican National Committee chairman who was also the chairman of Republican strategist Karl Rove’s political action committee, has spent big on television ads. The ads declare that “heavy-handed regulations from the EPA” have threatened coal’s potential to generate affordable electricity.