This article originally provided by The Wall Street Journal

May 19, 2008

Coal Country Lacks Consensus on a Nominee


As the Democratic presidential race unfolds in coal country this week and with John McCain's recent rollout of a global-warming initiative, coal industry officials and environmentalists are unsure which candidate to endorse.

Unlike the current political cycle, the Bush-Gore and Bush-Kerry contests of 2000 and 2004, respectively, offered a "pretty stark contrast," said Kraig Naasz, chief executive of the National Mining Association, a Washington lobby group. The organization supported Mr. Bush over his rivals, who decried global warming and the environmental damage that results from "mountaintop removal," the common practice of blowing apart peaks to get at the coal underneath.

With miner support, Mr. Naasz says, Mr. Bush in 2004 was able to capture 10 of 15 counties in Ohio where coal mining is prevalent, and 20 of 28 such counties in West Virginia -- votes that may have been crucial to his winning the election. The previous Republican presidential candidate, Bob Dole, captured a fraction of these counties in 1996.

Miner support also gave Mr. Bush 22 of 28 coal counties in Pennsylvania (Mr. Dole carried only one of them). Pennsylvania may prove crucial to victory this fall.

The primary season ends in Montana, the state with the greatest coal reserves, on June 3. Another coal-rich state, Kentucky, holds its primary Tuesday.

Mr. Naasz, who has personally contributed $1,000 to Sen. McCain's campaign, said the members of his lobby group remain divided over the issue. Campaign-contribution data from show that mining interests have donated $3 million to federal candidates in the current election cycle -- an amount that might double, if past trends are an indicator. Federal records show that Sen. McCain, the likely Republican nominee, has received $59,000 through March from mining interests, while Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have taken in $28,000 and $33,000, respectively.

Both Democratic candidates have been accused by environmentalists of pandering during the campaign season. During a recent interview with West Virginia Public Radio, Sen. Clinton, of New York, appeared to wobble on mountaintop mining: "You know, maybe there is a way to recover those mountaintops once they have been stripped of the coal. You know, I think we've got to look at this from a practical perspective."

Sen. Obama, as a senator from coal-producing Illinois, has sided with the industry on certain legislation, such as sponsoring a measure in early 2007 to subsidize coal-to-liquid refineries to make fuel from coal.

Moreover, Sen. Obama has adopted some of the vocabulary preferred by the coal industry, referring often to so-called "clean coal," a process, still in the research stage, in which carbon from burning coal is sequestered and stored underground. Coal-fired electric plants are believed to be one of the chief causes of global warming.

"Barack Obama believes in clean Kentucky coal," says a mailer recently sent to voters in that state. The campaign also has released a television ad in Kentucky featuring a coal miner named Randy Henry, who praises Sen. Obama's stance on coal. "Barack understands it," Mr. Henry says.

Such campaign tactics annoy environmentalists such as Brent Blackwelder, president of a group called Friends of the Earth Action, which is opposed to the use of coal. Though the political arm of his group endorsed Sen. Obama after former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards dropped out of the race, that hasn't stopped the activist from lobbing a few bombs. In a recent news release, Mr. Blackwelder chided Sen. Obama for "parroting" the words of the coal industry. "There's no such thing as 'clean coal,'" he said.

In an interview, Mr. Blackwelder criticized the Illinois senator for declining to "make any strong statement on mountaintop removal" during recent campaign swings through West Virginia and Kentucky.

The Obama campaign didn't respond to a request for comment on the coal-region campaigning.

Complicating the choice this year for miners is Sen. McCain, who has, like the other two candidates, developed a platform to address global warming by creating a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions. On paper at least, Sen. McCain's carbon-trading plan is far less restrictive than those proposed by Sens. Obama and Clinton.

What gives mining interests pause is Sen. McCain's failure to cast ballots on five votes over the past year or so. All were related to a major energy bill, a version of which eventually passed. Sens. Clinton and Obama were present for all of the votes.

An official with the McCain campaign said the Arizona senator was busy campaigning and working on an immigration bill when the votes took place.


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