In the middle of Appalachia, a billboard looms large over the highway: “Obama’s No job zone,” it reads, “The President talks about creating jobs but his EPA is destroying jobs.”
Another billboard on state Route 460, heading west toward Blacksburg, reminds people that, “Coal keeps the lights on.”
The billboards are a small part of a massive campaign push against the current administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, dubbed as a movement against President Obama’s ‘War on Coal.’
Earlier this year, the president and the EPA imposed new environmental standards that limit the acceptable amount of emissions for existing coal powered-plants, while also restricting greenhouse gases for new plants in 2013.
Legislators from areas with large coal mining industries have cited these new regulations as a devastating blow for their lifeblood industry.
These claims have led to a political dogfight as both parties vie for the favor of coal-mining cities predominantly located in southwest Virginia and Ohio.
The attacks on the Obama administration come on the tail of massive layoffs by one America’s largest coal producers, Alpha Natural Resources. Alpha announced in September they would be cutting 1,200 positions, eliminating eight coal mines across Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Their production loss is estimated at 16 million tons of coal.
Alpha has attributed these cuts largely to the EPA’s new regulations that have created “a regulatory environment that’s aggressively aimed at constraining the use of coal.”
Legislation from these cities has culminated in the ‘Stop the War on Coal’ act, approved by the House last September.
The act, although largely for show because it would be unlikely to get Obama’s necessary signature, barred the EPA from providing greenhouse gas restrictions and other environmental regulations.
Romney has used these new regulations as jumping ground on the campaign trail to place doubts on Obama’s concern for the welfare of mining-centered cities.
However, the Obama administration has defended their stance on coal, and even gone on the attack against Romney. Obama’s countering advertising campaign has purported a 10 percent increase in coal-related jobs since Obama took office, along with a 7 percent increase in coal production.
According to a study done by Appalachian Voices, an environmental non-profit, there has been a 28 percent increase in coal-related jobs in Virginia since the beginning of the recession in 2008 .
Southwest Virginia’s large coal industry has recently become a major conversation topic working against the president in the state, an important one in the upcoming election.
Virginia has maintained its swing-state status, with many political analysts predicting Virginia’s 13 electoral votes to be a frontrunner in ultimately deciding the results of the election.
This means that independent groups have focused a lot of energy on Virginia.
The American Energy Alliance, a conservative organization, has spent $600,000 on pro-coal television advertisements, criticizing Obama’s stance on coal production. These ads have circulating primarily in Ohio and Virginia, two swing states with large coal industries.
The ads cite Obama’s 2008 campaign, when he commented that under his cap-and-trade system, electricity rates would “necessarily skyrocket,” and “if somebody wants to build a coal-fired plant… it will bankrupt them.”
AEA also expects to secure space on the Internet for the ads, which will run through Oct. 26 in Virginia.
The group has also invested additional funds to run another set of ads, starting next week, that will extend into Pennsylvania as well.
Republican Congressman Morgan Griffith, of Virginia’s Ninth District, released a statement in September showing support for the conservative ‘Stop the War on Coal’ act.
In the release, Griffith expressed sympathies for coal miners facing tough economic times imposed by what he calls “the EPA’s regulatory assault on America’s power sector.”
Griffith calls for Obama as well as EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to discontinue their war on coal, saying the EPA regulations for coal-fired power plants are “not even commercially available today and are threatening to send our electricity rates skyrocketing.”
Virginia Tech has its own unique role in the debate; the school has a special relationship with coal, as well as the mining of resources.
Tech’s campus still runs on energy produced on campus from a coal-fired plant and intends to continue running on coal-power for the foreseeable future. The use of coal on campus has been the subject of scrutiny over the past few years, with notable groups like Beyond Coal and the Virginia Tech Environmental Coalition forming protests against the school’s coal use last year.
Tech is also home to one of the largest mining and minerals engineering school in the nation, with just over 200 undergraduate students.
According to Kyle Louk, president of the Burkhart Mining Society at Tech, nearly a quarter of actively working mining engineers graduated from Tech, some with special interests in coal.
“In the past five years, about 25-26 percent have entered into the coal industry,” said Louk.
With its own substantial interest in coal, Tech hosts several environmental awareness and informational groups. The perspective on the current coal debate amongst members of these groups, however, is not always the same.
Greg Jennison is the Virginia Tech representative for FACES of Coal, a nationwide group that advocates the protection and dissemination of information regarding coal mining on the east coast. Jennison attained first hand experience with coal mining over the summer.
“Obama’s policies and regulations are hurting the coal industry,” said Jennison, a junior mining and minerals engineering major. “I worked in a coal mine this summer, and you could just tell from all the regulations he’s been putting in… it’s hurting the coal industry.”
Kara Dodson, campaign coordinator for Beyond Coal, disagrees with Jennison.
“It’s not driven by Obama. If you look at his political campaign, it’s about clean coal, which is what every Republican says too,” Dodson said. “Companies are replacing people with machinery, and that’s why jobs are being cut. It’s not a regulation driven approach. Regulations are needed because we have scientific evidence of coal pollution.”
Division among these groups is representative of Virginia’s current indecision regarding the welfare of coal miners.
According to Dodson, political actions aren’t always in the best interest of the Virginia’s coal miners.
“It’s just a political game, honestly, and Morgan Griffith is holding onto that,” Dodson said. “He’s not from the coal fields. He’s from Salem.”
Despite this, the debate surrounding Obama’s ‘War on Coal’ has a special place here on Tech’s campus.
“The region that we’re in is heavily rooted in coal,” said Louk. “This is something vital to our campus.”
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