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.

Advance coverage is often stronger than stump speech accounts, but the next day’s article from the Dispatch team managed to go beyond the typical he-said, she-said campaign trail reporting (although it has some of that). After leading with Romney’s sharp attack on Obama’s negative campaigning, the story pivoted back to coal, spotlighting some of the problems Murray Energy has had and the differences between the two parties’ agendas:

The Century Mine is owned by a subsidiary of Murray Energy Corp., a company with past environmental violations that Democrats and environmentalists use as evidence to support stiffer regulations.

For example, Ohio Valley Coal and parent company Murray Energy were fined more than $1 million and required to spend $6 million to build a new slurry pipeline in Belmont County as part of a plea agreement for water-pollution violations in 2008 and 2010.

The president supports limits on carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants to help curb climate change, and the EPA under Obama also has enacted rules to limit toxic air pollution and mercury from coal-fired power plants—all policies Republicans and coal-industry leaders say are harmful.

The article also noted how the Obama team hit Romney over his past criticism of coal, and it would have been sharper had it pointed out the contradictions between that attack and some of the information above. Still, it amounted to two days of solid storytelling by the Dispatch.

At The Plain Dealer, coverage came in the form of a detailed advance story written by D.C. bureau chief Stephen Koff, along with reporter John Funk. They focused on how the issue of coal is being deposited within the core of politics, beginning with this lead:

The cost of regulation can be measured in a mound of coal. On Tuesday, Mitt Romney hopes to display the political cost, too.

After laying out the complaints of Romney and his industry backers, the article notes up high that one of their claims—that Obama’s policies will lead to skyrocketing energy rates—has been disputed by factcheckers (links would have been useful). And it provides some background about the checkered past of Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy

And Murray is known for tangling with institutions he distrusts. He became famous after a collapse at the Crandall mine in Utah, which his company co-owed, killed six miners in 2007. Murray was on the scene constantly and disputed claims about safety violations, although his company was ultimately fined.

From there, the PD rightly explores the industry’s fear of job loss. Like the Dispatch, the PD notes that the number of coal-related jobs in Ohio, though small, has actually increased since Obama took office. What this piece adds is a fuller exploration of another reason for the potential demise of coal—the availability of cheap, plentiful natural gas, “fracked” out of the shale in eastern Ohio and elsewhere. And it connects that debate to a summary of recent regulations that affect coal production and use. (One complaint: The discussion of job effects here doesn’t have any input from the coal workers’ union.)

There are still opportunities for Ohio’s leading papers—or some smaller outlets, whose coverage of Romney’s stump speech you can see here—to prod the campaigns to tackle some of the big questions Ken Ward Jr. raised. But this week’s coverage represented some solid reporting for an issue, and area, that usually gets limited coverage.

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.