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Coal gets renewed focus after debate

Mitt Romney cheered the coal industry in the presidential debates last week with his succinct declaration that “I like coal,” highlighting an issue that has divided the Republican nominee from President Barack Obama.

Mr. Romney singled out coal in describing his energy plan, saying, “I’m going to make sure we continue to burn clean coal.” He said the U.S. coal industry, which generates about 40% of the country’s electricity, feels like it’s getting “crushed” by environmental standards under the Obama administration.

Mr. Obama, who was on the defensive for much of the Oct. 3 debate, didn’t respond directly to that attack, but a campaign spokesman, Adam Fetcher, said the administration tries to “make sure regulations work with local circumstances and keep plants in business.”

In the past, the president has said he supports coal when coupled with technologies that prevent emissions from escaping into the atmosphere. His administration has invested in the development of clean-coal technologies, but the most effective technologies are generally expensive and unproven.

Mr. Obama has been a much bigger champion of natural gas, a cleaner-burning alternative to coal that is seeing fast-rising production in the U.S.

The Energy Information Administration said Oct. 4 that coal production through Sept. 29 of this year was 5.4% below the yearearlier level. A rise in coal exports has offset some of the loss in U.S. consumption. Natural-gas production in the first seven months of 2012 was up 5.9% over the same period a year earlier, according to the EIA.

While market forces — in the form of a glut of cheap natural gas — have persuaded many power plants to voluntarily switch to natural gas from coal, the coal industry says a string of environmental rules also prevent the construction of new coal-fired plants.

The rules could weaken the U.S. power grid if natural-gas prices rise or supplies get cut off, National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich said. “This policy exposes the U.S. to wholly unnecessary risks.”

The United Mine Workers of America, which has historically endorsed Democrats running for the White House, says it has no plans to endorse a candidate this time around. It is the first since 1972 that the coal-miners union is withholding an endorsement.

At the center of the debate are rules being developed by Mr. Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency to limit emissions of mercury and carbon dioxide from power plants. Combined, the two rules could drastically reduce the amount of coal used in the U.S., the industry says.

The EPA says it’s carrying out the orders of the Supreme Court, which in 2007 said carbon dioxide could be regulated by the agency.

“President Obama has acted to hold coal companies accountable for polluting our air and water,” Sierra Club executive director Mi- chael Brune said. “Romney, on the other hand, stands opposed to these landmark public health protections and would give his big polluting campaign donors free rein to pump more toxins into the air.”

If elected, Mr. Romney is expected to review and perhaps roll back the EPA’s coal-related rules. The former Massachusetts governor has said he opposes the rule limiting mercury emissions, telling the West Virginia Coal Association earlier this year that it is “a perfect example of a rule that makes absolutely no economic sense.”

Mr. Romney also rejects the idea that carbon dioxide is a pollutant and has said he would seek an amendment to the Clean Air Act to clarify that view, meaning climate change rules would likely be off the table. “In my administration, coal will not be a four-letter word,” Mr. Romney said in response earlier this year to a questionnaire from the West Virginia association.

The campaigns recently started to step up their focus on coal as an election issue. The Romney campaign released a TV ad last month featuring coal miners who said the administration’s policies are hurting the industry. The Obama campaign quickly fired back with a TV ad of its own, saying the miners were forced to attend the rally “all to be props in Romney’s commercial.”

Mr. Romney’s position on coal may not be enough to swing any states into his camp, but the GOP candidate is using this issue to demonstrate why he thinks Mr. Obama’s rules are too heavy-handed, said Kevin Book, managing director of ClearView Energy Partners.

“Romney is saying this is an area where government is hurting people,” Mr. Book said. “He’s got a tangible representation of where government has had an impact in a way that he views as negative.”

This report originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

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