MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Drive through the coalfields of Central Appalachia, and signs of the siege are everywhere.

Highway billboards announce entry to “Obama’s No Job Zone,” while decals on pickup truck windows show a spiky-haired boy peeing on the president’s name.

“Stop the War on Coal,” yard signs demand. “Fire Obama.”

Only a few generations ago, coal miners were literally at war with their employers, spilling and shedding blood on West Virginia’s Blair Mountain in a historic battle for union representation and fair treatment.

Today, their descendants are allies in a carefully choreographed rhetorical war playing out across eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and all of West Virginia. It’s fueled by a single, unrelenting message that they now face a common enemy — the federal government — that has decided that coal is no longer king, or even noble.

Blame the president, the script goes. Blame the Environmental Protection Agency. And now that it’s election season, blame all incumbent politicians — even those who have spent their careers in a delicate dance, trying to make mines safer while allowing their operators to prosper.

The war on coal is a sound bite and a headline, perpetuated by pundits, power companies and public relations consultants who have crafted a neat label for a complex set of realities, one that compels people to choose sides.

It’s easier to call the geologic, market and environmental forces reshaping coal — cheap natural gas, harder-to-mine coal seams, slowing economies — some kind of political or cultural “war” than to acknowledge the world is changing, and leaving some people behind.

War, after all, demands victims. And in this case, it seems, victims demand a war.

For the past 11 years, Kevin Spears has been a sought-after commodity — a young, healthy Caterpillar mechanic with nine mining job certifications and a willingness to work 60-75 hours a week.

But he lost his job in April when his employer ran out of money to finish reclaiming a strip mine site.

Spears has since applied for 20 positions, with no luck. He used to make $80,000-$110,000 a year, depending on overtime. With only a high school education, he earned more than a friend with a doctorate in psychology.

Today, he supports his girlfriend and their three children on $1,660 a month in unemployment compensation.

“You give up everything. You cut down to the bare essentials — food, water, power,” says the 32-year-old from Pikeville, Ky.

Coal helped build America. It powered steam engines on railroads that opened up the West. It fueled homes and factories. It made a lot of people rich and others comfortable. By the early 1900s, more than 700,000 men and boys worked in the nation’s mines, many for coal barons offering opportunity and brutality in equal measure.

The miners who resisted exploitation helped shape the principles of modern labor law: Pay by the hour. A week that lasts five days, not seven. Black men and white men paid the same.

Small towns sprang up along railroads and rivers that shipped the coal out. Miners were proud of their work, and still are. Today, though, fewer than 100,000 remain. Machines replaced many, while other jobs vanished as the fat, easily mined seams played out.

To hear industry tell it, those who remain are an endangered species in the crosshairs of overzealous environmental regulators directly responsible for wiping out thousands of jobs.

But in war, casualties are often inflated. The numbers are eye-catching, but details are lost. Too often, the narrative overlooks the fact that when layoffs occur, many workers transfer to other locations. One mine closes, another absorbs.

In reality, U.S. Department of Labor figures show the number of coal jobs nationwide has grown steadily since 2008, with consistent gains in West Virginia and Virginia, and ups and down in Kentucky.

There have been layoffs, to be sure.

Between January and June, coal companies in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky cut a combined 3,000 jobs. But mines in the Virginias still employed more people at the end of June than at the same points in 2008 and 2010, while Kentucky was only down by 1,000.

That coal faces challenges is a fact. It always has. During warm winters like the last one, for example, demand falls and stockpiles grow.

But what’s happening now is more than a seasonal slump or even a response to new regulations.

It’s a fundamental shift, and it’s likely permanent, as even coal executives say. When St. Louis-based Patriot Coal filed for bankruptcy in July, it didn’t mention a war. It said the industry is going through “a major correction,” a convergence of “new realities in the market.”

Environmental standards are growing tougher as Americans outside coal country demand clean air and water. Old, inefficient, coal-fired power plants are going offline or converting to natural gas, cutting into a traditional customer base. And that gas poses fierce, sustainable competition, thanks to advanced drilling technologies that make vast reserves more accessible than ever.

Even if the reviled regulations fell away, many experts say, coal’s peak has passed.

Thin Appalachian seams won’t magically thicken and become easier or cheaper to mine, as the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy notes. Production in the East has been already falling for more than a decade, first surpassed by Western states like Wyoming in 1998.

Now, even those states are struggling as domestic demand dwindles. U.S. coal production plummeted 9.4 percent between the first and second quarters of 2012.

By the end of the year, coal is expected to account for less than 40 percent of all U.S. electricity production, the lowest level since the government began collecting data in 1949. By the end of the decade, it may be closer to 30 percent.

Obama is an easy target. He armed his opponents during a 2008 campaign interview that touched on global warming.

“If somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can,” he said. “It’s just that it will bankrupt them because they are going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.”

He now espouses an “all of the above” energy strategy that includes a role for coal. But after he took office, the EPA provided more weapons to his critics.

It rolled out tough new air pollution standards, some of which had begun under the previous, Republican administration.

“I know we need the EPA to keep our laws,” says Allen Gibson, a disabled surface miner from Elkhorn City, Ky., who recently helped organize a United for Coal demonstration that stretched across several states. “But instead of telling the companies what to do to fix a problem, they shut the whole thing down.”

The EPA, he says, just wants to collect fines.

“But when they do that, the miners lose,” Gibson says. “I’m sick of seeing the little guy pay.”

During the permitting dispute in 2010, companies crammed miners onto buses and packed public hearings, forging a formidable alliance of management and labor that drowned out the environmentalists.

“They have completely turned the men on their heels,” says Nick Mullins, a 33-year-old former miner from Clintwood, Va., who blogs about coal country as The Thoughtful Coal Miner.

“They’re paying them better, and they’ve managed to really win the hearts and minds,” he says. Younger miners “didn’t see how bad the coal companies were to the men before them. … They don’t know their own history.”

 

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