OHIO — When Mitt Romney’s campaign bus rolled into the tiny Appalachian town of Beallsville in the eastern part of the state on Tuesday, the talking point of the moment was the nation’s energy agenda.

The coal mining burg is home to the Century Mine, and it marked the first of three Ohio stops for Romney, who was ending a four-day bus tour of Midwestern swing states in the wake of naming Paul Ryan his running mate. (Ryan, the powerful chairman of the House Budget Committee, was campaigning separately in Colorado.)

It’s a region that typically draws little notice in the Buckeye State’s big urban areas, but to their credit both The Columbus Dispatch and Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer took the opportunity to explore the political role of coal and the state of the nation’s energy affairs.

But we’ll start this roundup a few hours down the road from Beallsville and across the West Virginia state line, where one of the nation’s top coal reporters, Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette, used the occasion of Romney’s visit to note the “silly” state of the coal discussion in Campaign 2012.

Ward’s thoughtful, insightful post opened with a jab at Ohio Treasurer—and Republican Senate nominee—Josh Mandel’s inflammatory remarks at the Beallsville event, before focusing on how both presidential candidates have dodged not only their past anti-coal statements, but also tough questions about the future of the nation’s energy policies. And it contained plenty of media criticism, including some praise for a story by Politico’s Andrew Restuccia that began with this eyebrow-raising lead: “Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama both face an inconvenient truth in the battle for coal country’s votes: Pollution from coal-burning power plants makes people sick and even contributes to early deaths.” Ward also flagged a Greenwire piece by Manuel Quinones about how the big coal barons are bankrolling Obama’s opposition.

And down at the end of his post, Ward dug into the red meat of the coal issue, and outlined some questions that campaign reporters might want to take note of:

Faced with the clear science about power plant pollution, global warming, water quality damage, black lung diseases, and the mounting science about public health concerns related to mountaintop removal, the obvious question for politicians—especially those who want to be president—is exactly what are you going to do about these challenges? Important follow-up questions are things like: What is your plan for ensuring a clean, safe and sustainable energy system for our country? How will you diversify the economy and otherwise improve the lives of the people of our nation’s coalfields, especially at a time when the mining industry is in the midst of a major downturn?

Those questions weren’t all at the core of the coverage in Ohio’s big papers, but both the Dispatch and The Plain Dealer did a solid job handling the political calculus and employment ramifications of the coal debate, pushing back on unfounded assertions and bringing added context to bear.

In the Dispatch, an advance look by the team of Joe Vardon and Joe Hallett noted that both Romney and President Obama may have a tough sell in convincing area voters to get in their corner. The story cites a mine workers’ union spokesman pushing back on the assertion by Romney—and coal companies like Murray Energy Corp., which owns the mine in Beallsville—that Obama’s policies are costing jobs in the industry. (For a longer look at why the union isn’t endorsing either presidential candidate, see this article by National Journal’s Amy Harder.)

The Dispatch story also notes that both coal production and employment are up in Ohio during Obama’s presidency, and it relays the
Obama camp’s counter-argument that the administration has made available $5 billion for “clean coal” technology. It also reminds readers that Romney, in the past, has made anti-coal statements.

And down at the bottom—perhaps too far down—the article notes that this may be a substantial political fracas with a minimal reward in terms of voter impact:

Realistically, this is a big fight for a small swath of voters. Ohio’s coal country is predominately in counties covered by television stations in (the small markets of ) Zanesville, Youngstown and Wheeling and Charleston, W.Va., and in 2008, those markets provided only 10 percent of the votes cast statewide.

T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.