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Mine closings not likely to turn Va. elections

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) - In southwestern Virginia's coal fields, the closure of three mines announced last week is like a death in the family. Yet try as they will, Republicans will have a hard time making it the potent issue they hope it will be in this swing state.

Coal giant Alpha Natural Resources is closing three mines in Virginia and five elsewhere in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Company officials ascribed the shutdowns and a 16 million ton reduction in domestic production to electrical utilities converting coal-fired generating plants to cheaper and more abundant natural gas, and to what they characterize as a burdensome federal regulatory atmosphere.

Carbon gas emission rules that President Barack Obama's administration favors would inhibit the construction of new coal-burning plants. It will also hasten the shift to gas, which produces fewer harmful emissions.

The federal Energy Information Administration projects that power companies plan to retire 175 coal-fired generators by 2016. That's four times greater than all the retirements of coal-burning plants over the previous five years, according to the agency. And the 9 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity to go offline this year alone will probably be the largest single-year retirement total in U.S. history, according to a report the agency released in July.

The Republican presidential campaign of Mitt Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, are calling it President Barack Obama's "war on coal."

"The Obama administration's hostility toward coal, toward American energy independence is going to go, and the date it's going to go is Nov. 6, 2012," Ryan thundered Tuesday to the delight of a conservative crowd on the Christopher Newport University campus in Newport News.

The charge tracks the Republican campaign narrative that Obama's four years have failed to produce a significant rebound in jobs lost in 2008 and 2009 from the worst economic meltdown since Herbert Hoover was president. Ryan also bent the day's headlines into an argument that forsaking the nation's abundant coal supplies makes the United States more dependent on oil from hostile nations in the Middle East where U.S. embassies were attacked and where Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed at a consulate in Libya.

Republicans understand the power of coal, particularly in southwestern Virginia's 9th Congressional District where generations of mining families have dug their livelihoods out of the craggy Appalachian mountains. Two years ago, Democrat Rick Boucher, who had represented the "Fightin' Ninth" in Congress for 28 years, lost his bid for re-election because of the perception that he had acted against the interests of the industry.

Republican H. Morgan Griffith unseated Boucher primarily on the claim that Boucher was doing Obama's bidding on the so-called "cap-and-trade" legislation that would statutorily limit power plant gas emissions. Boucher actually helped shape and advance the bill at the behest of large utilities which saw the measure as preferable to regulations the Environmental Protection Agency would impose on them by administrative fiat. Those utilities were among Boucher's largest campaign donors in 2010.

The bill died in the Senate where Democrats couldn't overcome a GOP filibuster. But that didn't stop Griffith and allied conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity from hammering Boucher over the bill, something he couldn't explain away in a 30-second television ad.

"What people don't understand is that down there, coal is a way of life, not just an energy source," said Christopher J. LaCivita, a veteran national Republican campaign strategist who lives in Virginia. "What you're doing down there when you attack coal is you're rejecting an entire culture, people who've raised their families on coal."

The Romney campaign ads exploit exactly those sentiments. They are poignant and personal, featuring miners and coal families telling wrenching personal stories of how coal's decline is their decline.

But how damaging is that to Obama? He's never done well in the Fightin' Ninth and had no hope of it this year. Sen. John McCain beat him handily there in the 2008 general election, but Obama became the first Democrat to win Virginia in a presidential race since 1964.

Steve Jarding of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, a former campaign adviser to Virginia Democrats Mark R. Warner and Jim Webb, said the mine closures and even the broader decline of coal have little currency outside a district Obama had written off anyway.

"You always feel bad for those people, but it's not going to matter that much because the people who would vote against him on that issue already long ago took sides," Jarding said. "And outside of the district, it's just not a burning issue."

LaCivita said mine closures aren't personal and emotional to people elsewhere in Virginia.

"It will resonate some among people who are concerned that their country does not have a comprehensive and multidimensional energy policy," he said. "Anyone who cares about energy prices and keeping them affordable should care that a major portion of America's energy assets is being taken away by this administration."


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