Coal-producing regions glow with anti-Obama feeling

Mon, Oct 29, 2012, 00:00

The incumbent’s stance on the environment may cost him votes in some industries, writes CARL O'BRIENin Denver

ROBERT E Murray’s spacious office looks out over the rolling hills of southeastern Ohio. “This is coal country,” he says, with a flourish. “It’s a staple of American life . . . just like potatoes were to the Irish.”

It’s a view that might normally lift his spirits. After all, his company – Murray Energy Corp, the biggest coal mining company in Ohio – has made a fortune from the fossilised carbon in the surrounding hills.

But Murray (73), a man who still likes to don his mining suit and large steel boots from time to time, is not in good humour today.

“I don’t really understand who this Barack Obama is. All he is to me is the greatest destroyer of jobs that I know,” he says.

“I know the names of my coal miners, all 3,500 of them. I founded this company from a mortgaged home, and it now produces 62 per cent of Ohio’s coal. But if these mines close, these men lose their homes, their honour, their dignity, everything . . . He’s evil. It’s hard to know where the incompetence ends and the evil begins.”

It might not come as a surprise to learn that he’s supporting Mitt Romney. In fact, when the Republican presidential candidate came calling on his campaign tour, Murray closed his mines (“a safety precaution”, he says) and told his employees to attend the rally.

It sparked some controversy. Workers were reportedly told it was a mandatory meeting, though Murray insists his employees had a choice to attend or not.

Ordinarily, Obama might not have to worry too much about vested interests who are passionately opposed to his re-election. But these are not ordinary times.

Murray’s opposition represents problems for Obama in the coal-producing regions of swing states such as Ohio, Virginia, Colorado and Pennsylvania.

In the battle for the White House, both candidates’ positions on energy offer clearly different choices.

Obama insists there is a place for coal in his energy plans and administration officials claim the number of people employed in the industry has risen during his time in office. But his new Environmental Protection Agency regulations that target coal are not popular. They put new limits of emissions of toxins from coal-fired plants which officials say will save thousands of lives and reduce respiratory problems such as asthma.

Romney, by contrast, has pledged to dismantle the new environment regulations. He agrees with the coal industry which says that new standards will lead to significantly higher electricity costs and mass layoffs.

It’s a big shift from his days as governor of Massachusetts, when he was highly critical of the coal industry.

“I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people, and that plant, that plant kills people,” Romney announced in 2003 to reporters and camera crews, as he stood outside a coal-burning plant in the state. Nowadays, he’s fully behind the industry. Romney’s campaign to oust Obama has benefited richly as a result.

The battle is at its fiercest in Ohio, the battleground of battleground states. After Obama leading significantly for months, latest opinion polls show the gap between him and Romney has narrowed to within the margin for error.

No Republican candidate has ever won the presidency without taking Ohio. Now, Romney’s campaign is doing everything it can to bring the vote out in coal country.

Billboards on freeways in some of the regions tell drivers that they are entering the “Obama administration’s no jobs zone”. The adverts are sponsored by the coal industry group, the Federation for American Coal, Energy and Security.

Other ads that tell of the importance of protecting the fossil fuel by various other lobby groups such as the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, the American Energy Alliance and the American Petroleum Institute.

In addition, other oil and coal business owners are pouring millions into campaigns that either oppose Obama or support Romney. Multimillionaire William Koch, who owns oil, gas and coal firms, has given millions to campaigns against Obama.

His brothers, David and Charles Koch, who are also in the oil business, have mounted an effort to raise as much as $100 million.

Obama is trying to fight back, highlighting Romney’s shifting stance on the issue and emphasising the kind of policies – such as universal health insurance – that could benefit blue-collar workers in these areas.

His support for green energy is also harnessing votes in swing states such as Colorado, which has become a leader in harnessing wind energy.

But many miners are split. One of the biggest unions, the United Mine Workers of America, gave Obama its full-throated support in 2008. On this occasion it has opted not to endorse either candidate. A spokesman for the union points out that many of the toughest environmental rules were first enacted under Republican administrations.

“A lot of our members don’t realise that,” a spokesman said.

“But whoever is in charge is going to get blamed.”

Robert Murray, meanwhile, knows exactly where he stands. He says he is motivated only by saving the livelihoods of his workers.

And he’s convinced that the wider public will end up paying the price through rising unemployment and higher electricity prices.

“Obama is on a very radical agenda to appease his supporters: radical environmentalists, labour unions, liberal elites, crony capitalists . . . Hollywood characters,” he says.

“He’s destroying the lives of people on fixed incomes who will not be able to pay electricity bills . . . and he’s doing this as China is expanding its use of coal-fired electricity.

“I never thought I would see Democrats turn on their neighbours like this, just to get their president re-elected. But that’s what’s happening.”