MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Drive through the coalfields of Central Appalachia, and signs of the "War on Coal" are everywhere.
Highway billboards announce entry to "Obama's No Job Zone," while decals on pickup windows show a spikey-haired boy peeing on the president's name.
"Stop the War on Coal," yard signs demand. "Fire Obama."
While miners were once at war with their employers, the sides today are allies in a carefully choreographed rhetorical war playing out across Eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and all of West Virginia. It's fueled by a single, unrelenting message that they now face a common enemy — the federal government — that has decided coal is no longer king, or even noble.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Blame the president, the script goes. Blame the Environmental Protection Agency.
And now that it's election season, blame all incumbent politicians — even those who have spent their careers in a delicate dance, trying to make mines safer while allowing their operators to prosper.
The war on coal, observers say, 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.
It's easier to call the forces reshaping coal — cheap natural gas, harder-to-mine coal seams and slowing economies — some kind of political or cultural "war" than to acknowledge the world is changing and leaving some people behind.
War, after all, demands victims. And in this case, it seems, the victims are demanding a war.
Casualties of 'war'
In war, casualties are often inflated. In reality, U.S. Department of Labor figures show the number of coal jobs nationwide has grown steadily since 2008, with consistent gains in West Virginia and Virginia, and ups and down in Kentucky.
There have been layoffs, to be sure. From January through June, coal companies in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia 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 down by 1,000 jobs.
That coal faces challenges is a fact. It always has. During warm winters like the last one, for example, demand falls and stockpiles grow. But what's happening now is more than a seasonal slump or even a response to new regulations.
It's a fundamental shift, and it's probably permanent, as even coal executives say. When St. Louis-based Patriot Coal filed for bankruptcy in July, it didn't mention a war. It said the industry was going through "a major correction," a convergence of "new realities in the market."
Environmental standards are growing tougher as Americans outside coal country demand clean air and water. Old, inefficient, coal-fired power plants are going off line or converting to natural gas, cutting into a traditional customer base. And natural gas poses fierce, sustainable competition, thanks to advanced drilling technologies that make vast reserves more accessible than ever.
Even if the reviled regulations fell away, many experts say coal's peak has passed.
Thin Appalachian seams won't magically thicken and become easier or cheaper to mine, as the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy notes. Production in the East has been falling for more than a decade, first surpassed by Western states like Wyoming in 1998.
Now, even those states are struggling as domestic demand dwindles. U.S. coal production plummeted 9.4 percent from the first to the second quarters of 2012.
By the end of the year, coal is expected to account for less than 40 percent of all U.S. electricity production, the lowest level since the government began collecting data in 1949. By the end of the decade, it might be closer to 30 percent.
Somebody must be to blame.
Finding a target
President Barack Obama is an easy target. During his 2008 campaign, he armed his future opponents with an interview that touched on global warming.
"If somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can," he said. "It's just that it will bankrupt them because they are going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that's being emitted."
He now espouses an "all of the above" energy strategy that includes a role for coal. But after he took office, the EPA provided more weapons to his critics.
It rolled out tough new air pollution standards, some of which had begun under the previous Republican administration.
It vetoed a permit for a massive West Virginia mountaintop-removal mine four years after it was issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, triggering a federal court battle that's still playing out.
And the EPA cracked down on the permitting process for mountaintop mining, a highly efficient and highly destructive form of strip mining unique to Appalachia. The practice of flat-topping mountains, then filling valleys and covering streams with rubble, has divided communities and led to multiple confrontations between coal miners and environmental activists.
"I know we need the EPA to keep our laws," says Allen Gibson, a disabled surface miner from Elkhorn City in Pike County, who recently helped organize a United for Coal demonstration that stretched across several states. "But instead of telling the companies what to do to fix a problem, they shut the whole thing down."
In rallying support from miners, coal companies have tapped into a proud heritage of them being family providers, said West Virginia University history professor Ken Fones-Wolf.
"They feel that being against coal somehow denigrates all the sacrifices that generations of their families have made to the development of this nation," he said.
So miners have begun to fight for their way of life.
Labeling the issues 'war'
War sells because fear sells. It's an emotionally charged metaphor that has taken over much of political discourse in America, said Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and author of The Argument Culture.
There have been wars on drugs, wars on women, wars on the middle class. Why not a war on coal?
For people who want to govern, she said, war is about "destroying the opposition so they can get the power back." For media, it's about grabbing the attention of an easily distracted public. The more polarizing the voices, the more entertaining the story.
But such language, she says, contributes nothing to genuine understanding.
Rather, "it has this effect of making people angry, defensive and fearful," Tannen says. "It has a corrosive effect on the human spirit."
Two years ago, the phrase had only begun to creep into a conversation. Today, it's an inescapable, daily drumbeat, dominating not only conversation but campaign ads and newscasts.
"The idea of taking land in a moving front, there's something there," said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.
"Yes, it's part of a PR campaign," he acknowledged. "But people are pretty jaded and pretty quick to recognize false arguments. The idea that we somehow hoodwinked people in the coalfields is a bit of a stretch.
"It's not just some PR machination. It is a real, real concern."
In Kentucky, more than 55,000 people drive vehicles with "Friends of Coal" license plates, a slogan that Bissett helped launch to get people emotionally invested. Instead of seeing the industry as faceless men in suits, they see the pickups next to them at the supermarket parking lot, the tags instantly identifying the like-minded.
In one of his last major speeches in 2009, the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia warned that change was upon coal country. He chastised the industry for "scapegoating and stoking fear," calling it counterproductive.
The speech was largely ignored.
But fast-forward three years to another Democrat who's dedicated his political career to the Mountain State.
When Sen. Jay Rockefeller gave a remarkably similar speech in June, deriding the industry for what he said were divisive, fear-mongering tactics, the state's Young Republicans said Rockefeller had "gone from out of touch to dangerous."
They even invoked the language of terrorism, suggesting he was "an anti-Mountain State sleeper cell that has lain dormant for 40 years."
Allen Johnson of Christians for the Mountains, a group that opposes mountaintop removal mining, sees such verbal smack-downs as nothing less than a threat to democracy.
"If any politician dares step over the coal line ... you will get hammered back into place, and quickly," says Johnson, of Frost, W.Va. "You just metaphorically crack knuckles and knee caps."