the observatory

Debunking the ‘war on coal,’ take two

The AP gets it right the second time around
October 23, 2012

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Such was The Associated Press’s approach this month to explaining the so-called ‘war on coal’ that conservative spin doctors have been peddling throughout the presidential campaign.

An October 15 article by Donna Cassata failed miserably, recycling the narrative that environmental regulations under the Obama administration are the reason for recent turmoil in the coal industry. Five days later, an article by Vicki Smith sought to correct the record. Its opening paragraphs were a pitch-perfect echo of Cassata’s, describing a drive through Appalachia past countless yards signs reading, “Stop the War on Coal. Fire Obama. ” But the similarity ended there.

Characterizing efforts to blame lost jobs on the White House as following a “script,” Smith immediately went on to explain that the war narrative overlooks the fact that the industry hasn’t suffered as greatly under the Obama administration as it seems:

There have been layoffs, to be sure.

Between January and June, coal companies in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky cut a combined 3,000 jobs. But mines in the Virginias still employed more people at the end of June than at the same points in 2008 and 2010, while Kentucky was only down by 1,000.

Smith also explained that factors other than clean-air rules, such as cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas, have weighed down the coal industry. The reality, she wrote in no uncertain terms, is that:

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The war on coal is a sound bite and a headline, perpetuated by pundits, power companies and public relations consultants who have crafted a neat label for a complex set of realities, one that compels people to choose sides.

It’s easier to call the geologic, market and environmental forces reshaping coal — cheap natural gas, harder-to-mine coal seams, slowing economies — some kind of political or cultural “war” than to acknowledge the world is changing, and leaving some people behind.

In those paragraphs, Smith “really nailed it,” according to Ken Ward, Jr., who covers the coal industry for The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia and explained on his blog, Coal Tattoo, the two AP articles illustrate the wrong way and the right way, respectively, to approach campaign-coal coverage.

Cassata’s article went on for eight paragraphs before questioning the war narrative, and then it included only a canned rebuttal from a White House spokesman rather than an actual analysis of jobs data or market forces. “The entire piece is told through the quotes of candidates or paid spokespeople,” Ward remarked. “In an 1,800-word story, the AP couldn’t find room for one actual expert on energy markets to talk about what’s really happening in this industry.”

While not losing sight of the difficulties facing families throughout coal country or the importance of coal in those communities, Smith’s piece broke through the war narrative with some basic research, even if it could have used a bit more.

“In describing the reasons for coal’s current decline,” Ward wrote, “[Smith’s] piece would have benefited from a direct quote or two from the many reports and expert analysts that have said clearly that a variety of other factors—low natural gas prices, declining quality of reserves, competition from other coal basins—play a larger role than EPA regulations in what is happening now in the coalfields of Appalachia.”

He cited three examples such analysis in his post—a peer-reviewed paper from researchers at the think tank Resources for the Future; a report from the economic consultancy The Brattle Group; and a study from Harvard University—two of which he mentioned in a companion story that ran next to Smith’s article on front page of Gazette-Mail on Sunday. That story, as well as an article that Ward wrote for the October 29 edition of The Nation, titled “The Myth of the ‘War on Coal,’” reported that far from being an overbearing regulator, the Obama administration has cut the industry a break on numerous pollution and safety rules.

But those “wonky” addendums notwithstanding, Ward commended Smith for “trying to steer the debate over coalfield policies and this election into a more reasoned direction.”

Indeed, the effort was badly needed, especially after the AP first failed attempt.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.