COEBURN, Va. — Wearing helmets, headlamps and uniforms streaked with grime, the workers at Paramont Coal sound weary of fighting. They are in the middle of what they call a long-running “war on coal” that is threatening their livelihood and stoking fury directed at the federal government.
“When the president said that you can build a coal plant, but it’ll bankrupt you — he did a good job,” said Jack Blanton, 59, a supervisor at the Toms Creek plant, referring to remarks Barack Obama made as a candidate.
There is more than coal burning in America’s coal fields these days, and that anger could have an effect on November’s elections in coal-producing swing states such as Virginia. As coal companies idle mines and lay off workers, energy policy has become a hot topic in the U.S. Senate race between former governors Timothy M. Kaine (D) and George Allen (R).
On a campaign swing through southwest Virginia last month, Allen tried to capitalize on the resentment against Washington. He blamed the Obama administration for a growing number of mine closures and layoffs, and highlighted Kaine’s support for the cap-and-trade approach to limiting greenhouse gases, which scientists say have contributed to global warming. Allen also reminded listeners of Kaine’s close ties to the president as he argued that the Environmental Protection Agency has been using regulations to try to accomplish what the Obama administration failed to enact through Congress.
“These EPA regulations are, in effect, banning coal,” Allen told workers at a Tazewell County firm that manufactures electronic equipment used in mining.
But Kaine fired back this month with a TV ad showing him in a helicopter circling above the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, a new coal-fired power plant in Wise County. As governor, Kaine endorsed the Dominion-owned plant and cites it as proof of his support for using “clean” coal to meet America’s power needs.
On the campaign trail, Kaine also boasts of having adopted the state’s first comprehensive energy plan, which sought to achieve a balance between coal, nuclear, natural gas, wind and biofuels. He reminds people that as governor, he kept an open mind on the possibility of drilling for oil off Virginia’s shore.
Kaine said he understands the historical importance of coal and its future potential as technology reduces its impact on the planet. But he is also a believer in green energy that can produce jobs such as those at a General Electric plant in Salem where 700 workers build components for wind turbines and solar arrays.
“A third of new power in this country since 2007 that’s come online has been wind power,” Kaine said during a visit to Bristol’s Rhythm & Roots Reunion music festival this month.
Kaine also argues that, unlike Allen, he thinks the United States must cut carbon emissions and promote renewable energy. Kaine said that Allen can’t see beyond fossil fuels.
“My opponent will battle tooth and nail . . . to fight for subsidies for big oil companies and ridicule wind and solar,” Kaine said.
Coal country is increasingly Republican, and the mining industry’s recent skid is likely to make Democrats’ problems worse. Anger over cap-and-trade helped drive Rep. Rick Boucher (D) from office in the 9th District in 2010 after 14 terms. Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (R), a former delegate in the Virginia General Assembly who beat Boucher, seldom misses a chance to blame the region’s woes on the EPA.
“The story here is coal,” said state Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell County), who admits the regulatory and economic climate has made life tricky for his party. But Puckett said Kaine also has performed better than most Democrats in southwest Virginia.
There are also political crosscurrents. Generations of people, particularly in the mines, were raised in union families and taught that Democrats understand the concerns of working people.
Kaine also has long-standing ties to the area through his wife, Ann Holton, who was born in Roanoke and spent summers with grandparents in Big Stone Gap. As mayor of Richmond, Kaine worked with others in southwest Virginia on various initiatives. As governor, he made a point of visiting often.
The seven coal-producing counties of Virginia’s southwest taper into a sharp point stabbing at the blue-tinged mountains and valleys of Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia. When coal was king, the mines and towns thrived, and many working-class families made a decent, if dangerous, living.
But the days when coal gushed from the mountains in a river of black reached a peak in the 1990s. Virginia has fallen from sixth to 12th place in coal production nationwide, its miners digging the black rock out of thin seams measured in inches, compared with seams out West as thick as 10-story buildings. But coal still accounts for about 35 percent of electricity generation in Virginia, second only to nuclear, the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy says. Renewable energy makes up about 3 percent.
Driving on Route 58, these days, you pass lots of muddy cars and pickups with bumper stickers saying “Friends of Coal” or “Coal Means Jobs in Virginia.” But just last week, Alpha Natural Resources, one of the nation’s biggest coal companies, announced it would shed 1,200 jobs and close eight mines in Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Two weeks before that, Consol Energy idled its Buchanan County, Va., mine. Several other coal companies in Appalachia also have shed jobs or gone out of business, increasingly blaming federal regulations for their problems.
But others say the story line of a war on coal is too simplistic, and that market forces are as much or more to blame. Natural gas has plummeted from $7 per unit to as low as $2, prompting many power plants to switch from coal. A slowdown in Europe and Asia has cooled demand for a type of Virginia coal valued for making steel.
“I tend to think the EPA regulations are a minor part of the equation,” Boucher said. “But the sum total has put the coal industry in a very difficult position.”
On a visit to Tazewell County last month, Allen toured Pyotte-Boone Electronics, a company whose gear allows miners to communicate underground. Women, who make up most of its workforce, sit at tables threading electronic cable within earshot of freight trains that roll past, filled with coal. Lately, those trains have slowed, cueing Allen into a full-throated defense of fossil fuels.
“We’re the Saudi Arabia of coal,” Allen told workers. “It means jobs here in southwest Virginia. It means jobs in Roanoke. It means jobs at our ports and our railroads. And for everyone else it means affordable electricity. If the government knocks out coal as a source of reliable, affordable electricity, it means we’re going to feel the same pain paying our monthly electric bills as we feel with our gasoline bill.”
Allen also promised to clear the way for offshore drilling in Virginia, saying he would use the royalties for transportation. He said he doubted the wisdom of treating carbon dioxide as a pollutant or the cost-effectiveness of reducing carbon emissions to slow global warming by perhaps half a degree in 50 years.
“To impose this on Americans is, in effect, unilateral economic disarmament,” Allen said in an interview.
Coal companies have poured money into the election campaign, almost all of it for Allen. His top donors include Alpha Natural Resources, Alliance Resource Partners and Peabody Energy, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org. In contrast, among Kaine’s biggest contributor by industry was the League of Conservation Voters, followed by several corporate law firms.
Still, Kaine has strong ties to the region, and on a recent campaign stop several people spotted him, slapped him on the back and wished him luck as he made his way through the crowd to play harmonica with the band Folk Soul Revival.
“To win, and I’ve told him this . . . you have to have southwest Virginia in order to win any state office,” Bristol City Councilman Ed Harlow (D) said.