united states project

Covering the role of coal in Virginia

Coal is central to the campaign message war and money story here—but reporting has not kept up
October 8, 2012

VIRGINIA — Mitt Romney likes coal. A lot.

And the coal industry in Virginia likes Romney back.

Unfortunately, there’s not enough to like about how this state’s news outlets have covered the role of coal in the presidential campaign.

Romney has been hitting the coal message hard lately, and not just by proclaiming his fondness for the stuff at the first presidential debate. One day after Virginia-based coal company Alpha Natural Resources announced mine closures and layoffs in mid-September, Romney’s campaign was on the air with a pair of ads criticizing President Obama for overregulating the coal industry. And last Friday Romney brought his message straight to coal country with a campaign stop in Abingdon in southwestern Virginia (with free hard hats to the first 250 people on hand!), where he was introduced by Alpha’s CEO.

Romney’s not alone in making a bid for the allegiance of coal country, though. New regulations aside, Obama has advocated “clean coal” as part of his “all of the above” energy strategy, and a new Obama ad exploits the controversy over Ohio coal miners being ordered to attend a Romney rally to argue that the challenger is “not one of us.” (A similar struggle over the claim to be coal’s standard-bearer is playing out in Virginia’s Senate race, where Democrat Tim Kaine touts his role getting a coal energy plant built even as he is attacked as an enemy of the industry.)

In other words, coal has recently moved to the center of the message war in this swing state. It was already central to the money story—though there’s not much of a contest there. The top political donor in the state this cycle, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, is Richard Baxter Gilliam, the founder of Abingdon-based coal mining company Cumberland Natural Resources. (Cumberland was purchased in 2010 by Massey Energy, which was in turn acquired by Alpha.) Gilliam has given $500,000 to American Crossroads, a conservative super PAC, and $250,000 to Restore our Future, a pro-Romney super PAC. Alpha Natural Resources has given another $100,000 to American Crossroads, whose chairman, Mike Duncan, is head of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. All told, Virginia’s energy industry has donated about $2.8 million this cycle, according to VPAP—which puts it a close third behind partisan political committees and the real estate sector—and coal has accounted for nearly half of that, with the vast majority of those dollars going to Republicans.

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Much of that money circles back into coal- and energy-related ads. A September New York Times story noted the vast sums that have gone into “ads promoting coal and more oil and gas drilling or criticizing clean energy” around the country, and while breakdowns by ad messages aren’t readily available in Virginia, there’s been a barrage of energy-themed ads here. (VPAP does show the top third-party media buyers in the state; number one by a mile is Crossroads GPS, which is affiliated with American Crossroads and which has often hit fossil-fuel themes in its ads. The group spent nearly $930,000 in the state in the past week alone.)

So the political story around coal in Virginia is rich—but most of the coverage to date has been less so, and not only because, as I’ve written before, most news outlets here aren’t doing enough to factcheck the ads on the airwaves.

Let’s take a look first at some of the more interesting coverage, which was spurred by the announcements of layoffs at Alpha. Bob Lewis of the Associated Press turned in a sharp report on Sept. 23 that explored the historical importance of coal in Virginia politics—in particular how coal-country Democrat Rep. Rick Boucher lost his House seat in 2010 after supporting “cap-and-trade” legislation, even though he helped shaped the failed bill to benefit the utilities who were his biggest backers.

Lewis also offers this, on coal’s cultural significance:

“What people don’t understand is that down there, coal is a way of life, not just an energy source,” said Christopher J. LaCivita, a veteran national Republican campaign strategist who lives in Virginia. “What you’re doing down there when you attack coal is you’re rejecting an entire culture, people who’ve raised their families on coal.”

The Romney campaign ads exploit exactly those sentiments. They are poignant and personal, featuring miners and coal families telling wrenching personal stories of how coal’s decline is their decline.

Despite all that, Lewis argues, the recent layoffs pose little electoral risk to Obama, who’s never done well in coal country. True enough, but in that case why are both presidential campaigns (and both Senate campaigns) spending so much time talking about coal? Perhaps because in a tight race, every vote matters—and also because, as an interesting but flawed ABC News story noted, coal miners are an eye-catching stand-in for the white working class, as the campaigns try to target that demographic.

The other good stuff includes a column by the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Jeff Schapiro and a blog post by Peter Galuszka at The Washington Post. Both note the role of coal company cash, and Galuszka offers a little reporting that pushes back against the narrative about regulations forcing layoffs at Alpha. There was also this striking editorial in The Roanoke Times, responding to some of the rhetoric in the wake of the layoffs:

Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-9th District, lobbed a predictable news release into the ether accusing a “group of government bureaucrats” of trying to force the coal industry out of business. Senate Republican candidate George Allen and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney chimed in with similar screeds against President Barack Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency and, of course, their election opponents.

In truth, we are all enemies of coal, not because we wish harm on families who depend on mining for their livelihoods, but because our expectations have changed.

We still want cheap electricity. That part hasn’t changed. But we also want streams and rivers free of mercury. We want a planet that will not be suffocated by greenhouse gases before our grandchildren become grandparents.

In the past, we had to make trade-offs between two conflicting desires. But as study after study documented the terrible cost to our environment and our health from coal’s filthy byproducts, technology and the market changed, too, and offered us a cleaner and cheaper alternative in the form of natural gas…

More broadly, Alpha is reorganizing after its purchase of Massey Energy and focusing on metallurgical coal. The newly constituted company stands to benefit from pent-up demand from China, where infrastructure investments continue at a pace that simply doesn’t exist here, in part because economic reforms have been frozen by partisan bickering in Washington, D.C.

The problem is that the context, perspective, and expertise on display in some of the stronger opinion pieces has been mostly lacking in the political reporting on coal, whether it’s being done in southwestern Virginia or the state’s metropolitan centers. Even setting aside environmental concerns—as the candidates have mostly done while they present themselves as friends to coal—the news coverage hasn’t done enough to dig into the campaigns’ messages, explore coal’s influence on the race, or use this opportunity to explore the story of a changing industry and region.

Down in coal country, the Bristol Herald Courier won a Pulitzer in 2010 for its coverage of natural gas royalties. But its political coverage is mostly of the “let’s-cover-the-event” variety, with little or no pushback of what the boldface names are saying. (Here’s the paper’s coverage of Romney’s campaign stop last week.)
The paper’s approach to the Alpha layoffs was similar—competent and professional but not probing, and with an emphasis on management’s point of view.

Bristol is a small market, but the state’s larger newsrooms, in places like Roanoke and Richmond, haven’t picked up the slack. The reporting on Romney’s coal-country campaign stop, in which reporters had to juggle the candidate’s comments on that morning’s unemployment report with his messages on coal, was generally fine. But, even though the impact of regulations on coal-mining jobs is at the center of the political debate, I didn’t see one account that offered any hard data about employment in the industry. The best employment data, according to Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette and Pam Kasey of The State Journal in West Virginia, comes from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. (It takes some expertise to work with the files.) As Ward explains, the basic story is that coal jobs in Appalachia and nationwide actually increased during Obama’s first three years, before a wave of layoffs this year. And some regional think tanks anticipate coal employment may rise in the coming decades even as the industry declines, because productivity is falling. You wouldn’t know that from reading this year’s campaign coverage in Virginia.

You also might not know, unless you’re a close reader, the role that coal cash is playing in the campaign. Richard Gilliam, the founder of Cumberland Natural Resources, may be the single biggest political donor in the state, but other than a flurry of mentions in stories after the release of some VPAP data in August he’s hardly been mentioned.

The absence of that jobs data, and of Gilliam’s dollars, is probably the clearest sign of how campaign coverage of coal hasn’t dug deep enough, but a more thorough explanation of what some of those regulations actually do would also be welcome. It would also be good to hear more directly from the people of southwestern Virginia and across the region, some of whom are trying to speak up—and are voicing grievances about regulation but also about politicians’ failure to help diversify the region’s economy.

For inspiration and ideas, Virginia’s reporters only have to look across the state line, where some West Virginian journalists reliably turn in outstanding work on the coal beat—like this story, where The Charleston Gazette’s Ward serves as a one-man PolitiFact for one of those Romney ads. The campaigns have put coal at the forefront. It’s time for the coverage to catch up.

Staff writer Greg Marx contributed to this report.

Tharon Giddens logged more than two decades in newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina as a writer and editor. He is now living on an alpaca farm east of Richmond, Virginia.