The "War on Coal," A Political Dead End

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
June 2 2014 11:15 AM

The "War on Coal," A Political Dead End

138900986-fully-laden-truck-carrying-coal-drives-out-of-an-open

Photo by Daniel Berehulak /Getty Images

Over the weekend, the Washington Post's Lori Montgomery (temporarily freed from the soul-killing budget beat) published a gripping ground-level study of climate change fears in Virginia's tidewater region. As you might guess from the name, tidewater—which swung to the Obama ticket in 2008 and 2012—is bracing for rising sea levels.

The city hired a Dutch consulting firm to develop an action plan, finalized in 2012, that called for new flood gates, higher roads and a retooled storm water system. Implementing the plan would cost more than $1 billion—the size of the city’s entire annual budget—and protect Norfolk from about a foot of additional water.
As the city was contemplating that enormous price tag, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) last year delivered more bad news: If current trends hold, VIMS scientists said, by the end of this century, the sea in Norfolk would rise by 51 / 2 feet or more. “Clearly, we’ve got more work to do,” said Ron Williams Jr., Norfolk’s assistant city manager for planning.
Advertisement

Ed Gillespie, the avuncular but probably doomed Republican candidate for Senate (he currently trails Sen. Mark Warner by 19 points) has not yet said anything about that article. But he's been tweeting up a storm about proposed EPA regulations, finalized today, that will mandate greenhouse gas emissions falling 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

From a pure horse race respective, it's a strange decision by Gillespie. "Coal country," as it's defined in Virginia, swung hard away from Democrats from the 1990s to today. In 2012, Mitt Romney won Dickenson County by 24 points. The catch is that Dickenson County voters cast fewer than 7000 ballots.

Obama won the city of Norfolk by 44 points. It cast nearly 77,000 votes.

Of the many ways to look at the EPA regulations, "bad for the Democrats" has got to be the strangest. It's very easy to find coal country voters turning on their historic party, and easy to find Republicans bashing the rules. It's easier to find polling in which voters support them. In a Pew survey, 65 percent of all Americans and 52 percent of Republicans support tighter emissions standards. They do so, in part, because energy prices have not risen measurably. Gasoline prices have remained close to 2009 levels after a fall-off during the 2008 economic crisis. (Another dumb Republican line that makes sense to their base and to no one else: Gas was less than $2 on inauguration day! Yes, because of a collapse in demand, which no one has nostalgia for.)

That frees up voters to care about the effects of energy use, and not just its costs. Sure, this would not be the case had Democrats succeeded in 2009 and passed carbon taxes. But they didn't. It would be a bigger political problem if the energy industry wasn't, as usual, responding to regulation by looking at more ways to capture carbon. But it is. The Obama administration, having won the megastates of coal country (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia) twice now, is making life marginally more difficult for coal-country candidates. They're already distancing themselves from the rule. In the rest of the country, the rules are hardly controversial, and the sloppy Chamber of Commerce research that suggests EPA rules will kill jobs never seem to convince the millions of people whose jobs depend on, you know, the water levels not rising five-and-a-half feet.

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.