Not long ago, two things held true in Greene County: Coal ruled, and a Democratic presidential candidate could count on solid voter support.
Coal still holds its own. President Obama, not so much.
Across mining regions, the Republicans have mounted a relentless campaign blaming the Obama administration’s environmental policies for a decline in coal demand. It has struck a chord in Greene County, judging from the ubiquitous yard signs: “Stop the War on Coal – Fire Obama.”
Here in Pennsylvania’s southwestern corner, where coal-mining has been the economic foundation for more than a century, most of the population still identifies with the Democratic Party – 63 percent of 22,659 registered voters. Even Ronald Reagan could barely muster 40 percent of the vote in Greene County.
But support for Democratic presidential candidates has weakened in recent decades in this socially conservative region. In 2004, George W. Bush was the first Republican since Richard Nixon to win Greene County.
John McCain edged Obama by 60 votes in 2008, when members of the United Mine Workers of America went door-to-door on Obama’s behalf.
But this year, the powerful UMWA has declined to endorse any candidate amid the assault-on-coal campaign. The union’s neutrality is essentially a win for Republican Mitt Romney.
“Our members really feel stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Phil Smith, communications director for the mine workers.
“For the first time, our members don’t feel a Democratic president is on their side,” he said. Nor is Romney regarded as a friend of labor.
For the local GOP, the Nov. 6 election represents an opportunity to make inroads.
“I don’t think Obama has a chance this time,” said Archie Trader, the lone Republican representative on the three-member county commission. “Coal is our livelihood.”
The erosion of support for Obama in coal country may be insufficient for the president to lose the vote in Pennsylvania. Indeed, in areas outside of the mining regions, where coal is demonized for its emissions rather than lauded as a source of affordable electricity, Obama’s embrace of renewable energy may trump concerns about coal.
A recent energy poll by the University of Texas at Austin found that 62 percent of respondents said they were more likely to vote for a candidate who said he would increase funding for scientific and university research into new energy technologies. Forty percent said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supported decreasing the use of coal.
But coal still has a strong constituency, as well as hefty industry campaign support. And the GOP has turned up the heat in the battleground states of Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado, where coal is a significant employer. Its struggles are also emblematic of claims that Obama has overregulated industry in general.
In Pennsylvania, more than 40,000 people are employed by the coal industry, which contributes more than $7 billion to the economy, according to the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance. Coal production is down more than 6 percent from last year.
Obama’s supporters argue that the decline in coal demand is mostly caused by competition from cleaner-burning natural gas, rather than onerous regulations imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Greene County stands to gain from either coal or natural gas. The county is the state’s sixth largest producer of Marcellus Shale natural gas, part of a nationwide boom from hydraulic fracturing that has driven down the price of natural gas. Greene County has 324 producing Marcellus wells and recently received $3.1 million from the state’s new impact fee on gas wells.
But coal contributes more to the tax base. Property tax on coal accounts for 38 percent of the Greene County budget or about $3.5 million last year. Coal generates an additional $9.5 million in taxes for schools, said H. John Frazier, the county’s chief assessor.
Though mining now is mechanized and employs fewer people than it did when the steel industry was strong, it is thoroughly ingrained in the culture here. Almost everybody is related to a miner. The county still hosts the Bituminous Coal Festival, which culminates with the annual crowning of the Coal Queen.
“We’re proud of our jobs,” said David Moore, a fourth-generation miner. “We like to say we work in the dark so you don’t have to.”
Moore works at the Emerald Mine outside Waynesburg, which is owned by Alpha Natural Resources Inc. The Virginia-based company announced plans in September to lay off 1,200 workers and shut down eight mines, including the Dora No. 8 deep mine near Punxsutawney.
Alpha President Kevin Crutchfield blamed the shutdowns partly on “a regulatory environment that’s aggressively aimed at constraining the use of coal.” The company has actively supported the Romney campaign.
The dilemma facing unionized coal miners is plain at the Emerald Mine, one of two facilities that Alpha owns in Greene County that together employ 1,400 people. They are excavating coal from the famous Pittsburgh seam, a seven-foot thick layer more than 500 feet below the surface.
Smith, the UMWA’s spokesman, said older miners and retirees tended to support Obama – they are more concerned about health care and the preservation of Medicare. Younger miners are more concerned about the preservation of their jobs and find Romney’s support for the industry more appealing.
Anthony Swetz, 55, president of the mine workers local, said miners were conflicted without official union guidance. “A lot of members are asking, ‘If there’s not an endorsement, which way do I go?’ ”
He said government now regulated almost every aspect of mining, including workplace safety. “We don’t want to do anything that damages those protections,” he said.
But what good are workplace protections if there is no market for coal?
“Am I going to have a job in five years?” asked Travis Hartley, 29, a third-generation miner and a member of the union’s safety committee. “I think that’s where a lot of disillusionment is. I feel coal is still very much part of our energy picture.”