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In Ohio, lots of pro-coal ads, not so many miners

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One of the campaign issues grabbing attention in Ohio is the future of the coal industry. Romney has ads; Obama has ads.

But, there’s a funny thing about all the focus on Ohio coal miners in this year’s presidential election. Based on the attention, you might think we were talking about a whole lot of people.

We’re not.

In Ohio, “there are about 2,700 active coal miners as of the latest government data, which is 2010,” says Phil Smith with the United Mine Workers of America. “I would expect that number to be about the same, maybe less than it was in 2010.” The National Mining Association estimates less than one percent of Ohio’s GDP comes from coal mining.

So why all the attention?

Two words: swing state.

Candidates need every vote they can get, so they make promises about rescuing the slumping coal industry. Romney wants to cut anti-pollution regulations that affect coal burning power plants while Obama hypes clean coal technology. But neither one will keep the coal industry out of trouble it’s in today.

“People point to regulation for a lot more than regulation can actually explain,” says Council of Foreign Relations fellow Michael Levi.

He says the real reason coal is in bad shape is because of the glut of cheap natural gas. “Power producers go out there and they say, ‘I have a coal plant and I have a gas plant. I can put cheap natural gas in my gas plant, or I can put coal in my coal plant. The better deal for me financially is to use the natural gas.’ That means there is lower coal demand,” he explains.

None of which is to say that environmental regulations don’t matter. “In the long term, those regulations will make sure that coal stays out of the mix if they all come to fruition,” says Rob Barnett, government analyst at Bloomberg.

Regulations will at least make it more expensive to keep coal in the mix.

And what about the promise of clean coal? Barnett says we’re a long way off. The technology to trap carbon dioxide underground is still a work in progress. It isn’t available commercially.

Analysts say the coal industry’s best hope may be in exports, but demand from abroad is fickle.

It’s just one more thing a president can’t control.

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