Coal industry wary of Obama#8217;s plan

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 11, 2008

COLUMBUS — Ohio’s powerful coal industry has warm feelings for Appalachia native Gov. Ted Strickland, the man who’s trying to teach presidential hopeful Barack Obama how to win votes in rural areas in this crucial swing state.

Despite the similarities in the two Democrats’ views of energy policy, the industry hasn’t showered the U.S. senator from Illinois with the same affection.

Strickland ‘‘comes from Appalachia and he comes from coal-mining areas,’’ said Ohio Coal Association President Mike Carey. ‘‘He probably has a little bit better understanding than someone who represents urban Chicago.’’

Email newsletter signup

The good news for Obama is that his energy views — which include a place for so-called ‘‘clean-coal’’ technology and a cap on carbon emissions — don’t differ much from those of Strickland. And Carey views Strickland as having been a better friend to coal than Obama’s opponent, Republican John McCain, whose energy plan also calls for an emissions cap and promotes clean-coal.

When Obama visits Ohio Friday to talk about energy policy, he’ll be bringing a plan to boost investment in renewable energies to a state that boasts roughly 4,000 coal mining jobs, more than 80 coal mines and produces nearly 90 percent of its electricity using coal.

Ohio relies more on coal than the vast majority of the 50 states. Any federal policy that penalizes coal is likely to hit the economies of Ohio — and surrounding states such as Kentucky and Pennsylvania — particularly hard.

Because of his roots, rhetoric and some of his policies, Strickland has managed to develop a good working relationship with the coal industry. This comes despite Strickland recently playing a major role in overhauling Ohio’s energy policy in ways that will disrupt coal’s status quo.

The energy plan Strickland signed into law earlier this year requires 25 percent of the state’s electricity to be produced using advanced energy sources by 2025. In a move praised by environmentalists, half of that 25 percent must come from sources such as wind and solar. In a move that kept the coal industry happy, half can come from nuclear and clean coal.

‘‘The governor has been able to strike a pretty good balance,’’ said Nolan Moser, air and energy program manager at the Ohio Environmental Council. ‘‘Of course we’d always like to see a stronger environmental focus out of the office.’’

Strickland’s campaign has received thousands of dollars in donations from energy utilities largely dependent on coal, from coal magnate Wayne Boich and from the United Mine Workers Political Action Committee.

Obama, while featuring clean-coal on his Web site as part of his energy plan, made the coal industry cringe with one comment that the nation should tax ‘‘dirty’’ coal.

‘‘The governor has been very good to work with,’’ Carey said. ‘‘Conversely with Barack … some of his statements have been a little concerning.’’

The industry in Obama’s home state of Illinois has similar concerns. Illinois Coal Association President Phil Gonet said Obama backtracked on support for legislation he previously championed to promote the conversion of coal into liquid fuel. He said Obama bowed to pressure from the environmental lobby.

‘‘Obviously his actions really can’t be seen as supportive of coal,’’ Gonet said. He said McCain hasn’t been a friend to the industry either.

But Illinois state Rep. Dan Reitz, from Steeleville in the coal-heavy southern part of the state, said Obama took an interest when he was elected to the Illinois Legislature in learning about the concerns of the coal-producing region.

‘‘The dilemma any urban legislator has is balancing environmental concerns with energy needs,’’ Reitz said. ‘‘But he always had an open door and would listen to concerns we had.’’

Strickland’s position with the industry may help Obama in Ohio.

‘‘It’d be nice to make sure the governor talks to him as he works to develop an energy plan,’’ Carey said.