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As Obama visits coal country, many are wary of his environmental policies

By David A. Fahrenthold and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 2010; A01

BECKLEY, W.VA. -- Coal has helped divide Barack Obama from the people of this heavily Democratic state. On Sunday, it will bring the president and West Virginians together, at least briefly.

Obama will speak at a memorial for 29 miners killed April 5 in an underground explosion. The trip brings him to the heart of a state whose voters rejected him twice in 2008. Even some Democratic politicians worry that his environmental policies are hurting a struggling region.

Obama's political rise, first as a senator from a coal-producing state and then as leader of a party with deep roots in Appalachia, has coincided with coal's emergence as an environmental boogeyman. Old gaps between Democrats in West Virginia and those in Washington, between miners and environmentalists, widened just as he sought to straddle them.

As president, Obama has devoted billions to developing technology aimed at reducing coal's greenhouse-gas emissions, often referred to as "clean coal," which the industry also supports. Despite that, many here focus on his policies on climate change and "mountaintop removal" mining, believing they unfairly target the industry.

On Sunday, in this little city chiseled into valleys and hilltops, Obama will convey the country's grief and its resolve to prevent future mining accidents, aides say. For once, everyone associated with West Virginia's most contentious and necessary rock might concur.

John D. Humphrey, a Democratic county commissioner here in Raleigh County, said he couldn't recall a president as unpopular in southern West Virginia -- and he himself sees signs of a "war on coal" in Washington. But he said, "Even what I guess you'd call the anti-Obama people . . . they feel good that he's coming to the county."

A few miles from the arena that will host the service, Humphrey sells hot tubs in a showroom decorated with a moose head, a stuffed tom turkey, and two bears frozen in mid-snarl. "I've had hope all along for him, I really have," he said of the president.

Obama has responded to the blast at the Upper Big Branch mine, the worst U.S. mining accident since 1970, with sharp criticism of both the mine's owner, Richmond-based Massey Energy, and the federal regulators who watched over it.

"This tragedy was triggered by . . . a failure first and foremost of management," Obama said, "but also a failure of oversight and a failure of laws so riddled with loopholes that they allow unsafe conditions to continue."

Aides said there had been little doubt Obama would attend Sunday's memorial service. Vice President Biden will join him.

"Any loss of life is tragic, but this is an enormous tragedy and loss for the people of southern West Virginia, and he wants very much for the people of West Virginia to know that the country mourns with them," said a senior aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president's thinking on a sensitive subject. "Being from a coal state, he understands how a tragedy like this one deeply affects a close-knit coal community and is felt throughout the state."

The visit brings Obama to a touchy place politically. In 2008, Hillary Rodham Clinton resoundingly beat him here in the Democratic primary and Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.) beat him by 13 percentage points in the general election. The southern counties of West Virginia are at one end of the "McCain Belt," a swath of the Appalachians and upper South that went more heavily Republican in 2008 than in 2004.

The reasons were complicated: fears about gun control, rumors about Obama's religion, differences over abortion and gay rights. "How to say this . . . " said Humphrey, the Raleigh County commissioner. "Did race play a part? It's possible."

Also, Obama visited West Virginia less often than Clinton. Robert Rupp, a professor of political science at West Virginia Wesleyan College, said Obama missed an opportunity: In 1960, candidate John F. Kennedy was greeted warily here because he was Catholic. But he campaigned hard, "and the state fell in love with him."

"In Appalachian culture, we value face-to-face," Rupp said. But both during the campaign and now, local observers say, Obama's problems have a lot to do with coal.

"I think they want to outlaw coal mining," said David Baisden (D), a county commissioner in Mingo County on the Kentucky border, which gets half its tax revenue from coal. "We have the utmost respect for the president of the United States. But his policies . . . have us concerned that he's going to give America away."

White House officials dispute the anti-coal characterization and say the president is not seeking to shut down the industry. They say he has inherited a legacy of distrust and suspicion among miners toward Democrats and their policies.

They also say Obama has promised that coal can prosper, if companies can mine it more cheaply and burn it without producing as many greenhouse-gas emissions.

"I actually agree global warming is a serious problem," Obama said as a candidate. "It's not just some tree-hugger, you know, sprout-eatin' liberal thing. . . . But here's the point I was going to make. We're the Saudi Arabia of coal. And we should have the innovation and the technology to make -- to make coal clean."

He already knew the difficulty of bridging the pro- and anti-coal camps: As a senator, Obama was first criticized for doing too little to help Illinois' coal industry. Then environmentalists criticized him for doing too much, supporting a bill that would have funded turning Illinois coal into high-emitting liquid fuel.

As president, he has sought compromise on issues where others see little room.

One is climate change. Obama supports legislation to cap U.S. emissions, which the coal industry fears could raise energy prices and reduce demand. Coal provides about 45 percent of U.S. electric power.

But Obama has also funded research into "clean coal" technology, which could capture emissions and bury them deep underground. He allocated $4 billion from the Energy Department; the administration has invested $334 million in a project in New Haven, W.Va. Frank O'Donnell of the environmental group Clean Air Watch criticized that as akin to a coal-company "bailout," with the federal government funding work necessary to the firms' future.

"He's tried to walk a tightrope" on the issue, O'Donnell said. "It sounds very glib to say, 'Oh, we're going to have clean coal and the universe is going to be wonderful.' But somebody is going to wind up paying a lot for it, if it works. And that somebody is going to be the U.S. taxpayer."

On the contentious issue of "mountaintop" mining, the Environmental Protection Agency issued guidelines this month that could sharply curtail the practice, citing the damage done when mine waste is dumped into nearby stream valleys.

Obama argues that mine owners could afford operations -- if they wanted to -- that protect the waterways while preserving valuable mining jobs.

Many coal companies didn't seem to suffer financially in Obama's first year: Massey Energy, for instance, recorded a $104 million profit despite the recession. But companies say the new guidelines threaten both companies and mining towns.

"You'd be hard pressed to find a president whose actions have been more warlike on coal. There are those who say the president has parked his tanks on our front lawn, and it's hard to dispute that," said Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association.

On Sunday, however, Obama will be talking about miners, a subject that unites all parties. Local political experts say he could win favor by promising more federal safety oversight and punishment of coal companies' offenses.

Relatives of the miners said that they were touched that Obama is visiting and that they hope he will press the investigation into the cause of the blast. Linda Clark, whose son Robert Clark was among the 29 killed, said she will be at the service despite a lingering case of pneumonia.

"It just makes me feel real good that he's honoring all the men," she said. "They go down in that hole every day, you know. That dark hole."

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