Amid Fight for Ohio Votes, a Debate Over the Future of Coal

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Nearly 50 percent of U.S. energy came from coal in 2004. This year, less than 40 percent does. It’s a shift southeastern Ohio has been feeling for a long time. Two thirds of the state’s coal mines have closed in the past 20 years.

Robert Murray is the CEO of Murray Energy and a big GOP fundraiser in Ohio. He recently closed one of his mines in the state, and blamed Obama administration EPA regulations.

MURRAY: "People are not going to be able to pay electric bills…And people that have factories that depend on low-cost electricity…they're not going to be able to export their products because China will have the low-cost electricity...Mr. Obama is destroying low-cost electricity in America."

And at least some people hold a similar views here in this barn in Cadiz, Ohio. Every year a group of guys gets together to talk and fry side meat.

SPIKER: "Side meat is fresh bacon. It's not been cured, smoked or anything…It's a local delicacy. And you can put delicacy in quotes."

That’s Bill Spiker, our host, who used to be CEO of a surface mine. His guests are sort of an old boys’ club in Harrison County. Among them are a former banker, a retired railroad exec and the owner of a supermarket. The men aren’t certain about coal’s future but they see the main threats as competition and Washington. Chester Porter worked in mining for 30 years.

PORTER: "I think a lot of it is environmental. You know, Clean Air Act. And I think is gas is going to hurt them now. It's a lot cheaper than coal."

New EPA regulations and a natural gas boom have shaken up the coal industry. I head to a nearby coal mine, and hear much the same thing from some miners as their shift ends. Dave Stewart has worked in mines for 10 years.

STEWART: "They're trying to shut down these coal-fired power plants, and the only thing Obama's really pushing for is wind and solar and things like that."

But Chris Van Atten, an energy consultant in Boston, says the EPA isn’t the only reason coal plants are closing.

VAN ATTEN: “Coal-fired power plants in the United States are getting older and less efficient as a result. Natural gas prices are at record lows.”

Scott Potter is a senior energy adviser at Ohio State University, and he says regulations will probably cost the coal power industry $10 billion a year. Even so, Potter’s not gloomy about coal production.

POTTER: "I think the future for coal in Ohio and in the nation at large is very positive."

That’s because coal exports are up. Developing economies in Asia are looking to U.S. coal producers as they try to meet a growing demand for electricity. And despite the declining reliance on coal in the U.S., tighter regulation and fewer mines, Ohio coal production is at its highest level since 1998, according to a preliminary report from the energy department.

And, looking on the bright side, coal country is reaping benefits from the production boom of natural gas in shale rock.

This is the courthouse in Belmont County, Ohio’s biggest coal producer. It’s full of people who are quickly flipping through property records. They snap photos of each page. Gas companies will use this information to lease drilling rights from local residents.

Mary Catherine Nixon has been county recorder for 16 years.

NIXON: "Oh my God, it's busier than we've ever been. Yeah, this is busier. This past year, year and a half has been unbelievably busy.”

So we have coal regulation: up, coal exports: up and coal competition: up. It’s a mixed bag of pluses and minuses. And how will it all add up for voters of southeastern Ohio? In the last two presidential elections the region, went for Republicans -- but it was fairly close.

Back at the barn in Cadiz, where the men gathered for bacon, coal holds sway for some but not all. These voters care about more than just one issue. As of last week, John Mattern was still on the fence.

MATTERN: “Just listening to the ads, I think that I would rather go with Obama than with Romney, but if I had to vote today, I don’t know. Probably would be a flip of the coin and go that way.”

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