Presidential race shines spotlight on coal country

Hard times in Appalachia's coal country have turned what was once Bill Clinton's territory into fertile ground for Donald Trump's supporters, as the industry's struggles push it to the forefront of the presidential election.

Julie Jacobson/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, shown here during a campaign rally, in Bethpage, N.Y., on Wednesday, says he would create coal-mining jobs as president, and he criticizes Hillary Clinton for saying 'we’re going to put a lot of coal miners' out of work.

Coal-country Democrats aren't what they used to be, but Appalachia's miners are still taking center-stage in the presidential race.

Appalachia turned out for Bill Clinton in 1992, as the then-presidential hopeful rolled through coal towns in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee to cheering crowds. Hillary Clinton also took all three states during the 2008 Democratic primary against President Obama, but when Bill Clinton campaigned for his wife on Sunday, he met protests from supporters of Republican Donald Trump.

Hard times have hit the coal mines of Appalachia and turned them bright red.

"Hillary Clinton should be in prison," Dionne Collins, who voted for Bill Clinton in 1992, told the Associated Press. "The only hope is Donald Trump."

An out-of-work coal miner confronted former-Secretary of State Clinton during a campaign stop in West Virginia, handing her a photo of his family and requesting an explanation for statements she made earlier on CNN.

"I'm the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country, because we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right?" she said during a CNN town hall. "Now we've got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don't want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on."

Mr. Trump's rhetoric has been more pleasing to a miner's ear, although the practicalities of shifting energy demands could mean his promises are no easier to fulfill.

"We're going to get those miners back to work ... the miners of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, which was so great to me last week, Ohio and all over are going to start to work again, believe me," Trump said after winning the Indiana primary on Tuesday. "They are going to be proud again to be miners."

A Trump advisor has said the candidate plans to review Environmental Protection Agency standards, including those that have forced some plants to close. This would help coal somewhat in the long run, John Deskins, director of an economic-research bureau at West Virginia University, told the AP, but does not solve the problem of competition from natural gas.

"It is very unlikely we will see a return to levels of coal production like we observed in 2008," Mr. Deskins told AP.

Both candidates have struggled with an even-more fundamental problem plaguing Appalachia's coal miners. The widespread use of fracking has decreased the cost of natural gas just as EPA regulations have raised the costs of operating coal-fired plants, and utilities have switched over. Natural gas is cleaner for the air than burning coal.

During coal's last peak in 2008, half of US energy came from coal and one-fifth from natural gas. In the last eight years, the two have split to one-third each, and the US Energy Department predicts a 16 percent drop in 2016, the largest single-year decline since 1958.

Supply, as well as demand, has declined. Much of Appalachia is mined out, and Wyoming now has twice the recoverable coal reserves of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio put together, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

West Virginia's unemployment rate of 6.5 percent, compared to the national rate of 5 percent, makes it an issue that will likely maintain its place in the presidential race.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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