WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama have wholeheartedly embraced coal on the campaign trail, despite past statements from Romney and Vice President Joe Biden that pollution from coal-fired power plants kills people.
Coal has become a major issue in the presidential campaign, in part because the coal-producing state of Ohio is among a handful that are expected to decide the election. Romney is telling voters that Obama is "waging war on coal," a cry also taken up by Republicans in the House of Representatives, who are putting out pro-coal bills as a message. Romney pledges to roll back environmental regulations if he's elected.
Many officials and residents of Kentucky's coalfields also argue that environmental regulations under Obama have hurt the state's coal industry, but analysts say it's questionable how much Romney could do to help a coal industry that's been hurt more by utilities switching to cheap natural gas than by Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
"Coal is being done in by cheap natural gas. There's no good reason for any utility company to build a new coal power plant right now, with natural gas prices being where they are and where they look like they're going to be for a long time," said Andrew Holland, a senior fellow for energy at the nonpartisan American Security Project, a research center. "Even if there were no regulations on coal, I think you'd still be seeing a move toward natural gas."
Obama, like his challenger, nevertheless has talked up coal during the campaign. He highlighted a vision for the future during his Democratic National Convention speech in which the nation continues to invest in "clean coal" technologies meant to reduce the carbon dioxide impact of burning coal and keep the industry going.
The Obama campaign has run radio ads in Ohio hammering on that theme and portraying Romney as the one who's really anti-coal. The ads are about Romney's 2003 effort, as the governor of Massachusetts, against an unpopular coal plant in his state.
"I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people," Romney told the news media at the time. "And that plant, that plant kills people."
Frank O'Donnell, the president of the environmental advocacy group Clean Air Watch, said he was taken aback to hear the Obama campaign's ad playing up the coal industry. "I think that ad goes to show you that it's perhaps only a slight exaggeration to say this election is about swaying the minds of 11 people in Ohio," he said.
Ohio is among the most crucial prizes in the presidential campaign. The state ranks 10th nationally in coal production and gets 86 percent of its electricity generation from coal. But the battleground states of Virginia and Colorado are significant coal-producing regions as well.
There's also a lot of talk in the nation's top coal states — Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Texas — about what a Romney presidency might mean for coal.
The coal industry in Kentucky is firmly behind Romney, not just because of the administration's policies affecting coal, but because of Romney's energy policy, said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.
The industry sees the election as a crossroads, Bissett said, with the spectre of continued decline if Obama is re-elected.
"I think our industry very much looks at this as a fork in the road," Bissett said.
Coal companies have laid off about 2,000 miners in Eastern Kentucky this year. Though analysts point to competition from natural gas as a key reason, many residents blame federal environmental regulation.
In Pike County, one of the largest coal producers in the nation, Judge-Executive Wayne T. Rutherford pointed out that far more local residents voted for "uncommitted" in the Democratic primary this year than for Obama. The president lost to uncommitted in nearly every coal-producing county in Eastern Kentucky, by margins of 2 to 1 or more in some.
Rutherford said he doesn't think the president's talk about clean-coal technology will win him points in Kentucky this fall, when Romney is expected to win the state easily this time.
"Coal's our lifeblood," Rutherford said. "We are upset. Very upset."
Romney brought up to Ohio voters a video of Biden saying in 2007 that pollution from coal-fired power plants is more likely to contribute to the death of an average American than a terrorist attack. Romney said it showed where the Obama administration really stood.
The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity also has waded into the debate. The group, whose new leader is Mike Duncan of Kentucky, a former Republican National Committee chairman who was also the chairman of Republican strategist Karl Rove's political action committee, has spent big on television ads. The ads declare that "heavy-handed regulations from the EPA" have threatened coal's potential to generate affordable electricity.
Romney has attacked coal regulations but he'd have limited power to roll them back if he's elected, said Kyle Danish, a lawyer who specializes in energy at the Van Ness Feldman law firm in Washington.
The biggest EPA air-quality rule that affects coal plants is a limit on mercury and air-toxics emissions, he said. It stems from requirements of the Clean Air Act, a law that only Congress can change.
Romney might be able to delay the deadlines for compliance or make some changes if the courts toss out the Obama rule, Danish said, but the Clean Air Act has boundaries that wouldn't let him be too lenient.
Romney also has made it clear that he's against using the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and he could try to slow or block rules on that from being finalized. But the courts have said so far that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide, and there are limits on what Romney could do without Congress agreeing to make changes to the law.
Romney could have the biggest impact on the contentious issue of mountaintop removal mining in the Appalachians, said Danish, the energy specialist at Van Ness Feldman.
The Obama EPA has made efforts to get more involved in regulating mountaintop removal mining, he said. "That's really the area I think most people in the industry expect a significant difference between an Obama EPA and a Romney EPA."
The EPA objected to 36 mountaintop mining permits in Eastern Kentucky. The state had issued the permits, but the federal agency held them up, citing concerns that they would not properly protect water quality.
Hundreds of people in favor of mountaintop mining in Eastern Kentucky attended a noisy rally in June held just before the EPA took public comments on the permits at issue.
"We think you've forgotten who you work for," state Rep. Ben Waide, R-Madisonville, told EPA officials at the hearing.
Herald-Leader Reporter Bill Estep contributed to this story.