In a conference call Monday, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka tested out a new line of attack against Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney: He is too radically pro-environment for Ohio.
Specifically, Trumka told reporters that the new Environmental Protection Agency clean air regulations that have been linked to the closure of mines and coal-fired power plants in the Buckeye state and elsewhere were actually Romney's doing.
"Those EPA regulations were ordered by the Supreme Court as a result of a lawsuit by Mitt Romney's state when he was governor. If there is a 'war on coal,' it starts and ends with Mitt Romney," Trumka said. He also attacked Romney for saying in 2003 that a coal-fired power plant should be closed because it was killing people.
That a major Obama ally could accuse the Republican nominee of not only effectively running the EPA but of running it too far to the left is a sign of just how effective the GOP's "war on coal" message has been in key swing states.
Ohio was supposed to be the Obama campaign's firewall against a GOP insurgency, but polls last week show the race there even. Republicans have been relentlessly hammering the EPA in the coal regions of the Buckeye State, hoping the regulations are politically toxic for Obama. During the Denver presidential debate, Romney even exclaimed, "I love coal!"
Last election, Obama won the 18 Ohio counties that produce coal by a margin of about 41,000 votes. That alone accounted for one-fifth of his margin over GOP candidate John McCain in the state. Hence, the need to muddy the issue by blaming Romney for the EPA's actions.
Trumka's novel argument was based on the Supreme Court's 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA case, which found that the agency had authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases.
His version leaves out a little context: The case was brought not by Romney but by Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly, a Democrat who was elected independent of Romney. Romney has criticized the ruling. Obama's EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has not only praised it, but said it mandated that her agency regulate carbon (as opposed to merely giving it the discretion to do so).
Obama's EPA has clamped down on mountaintop strip-mining, tightened overall carbon emission levels and effectively banned the creation of new coal-fired power plants. As President Obama promised before he was elected, his regulations are making any new plant uneconomical.
Those regulations have been linked to the bankruptcy of Patriot Coal and Alpha Natural Resources's decision to close eight mining facilities in Appalachia and lay of 1,200 people.
Many workers are fed up. The United Mine Workers of America enthusiastically endorsed Obama in 2008, but this year the union refused to issue a presidential endorsement. It was the first time since 1972.
"Our members count on coal-fired power plants and burning of coal to keep jobs," UMWA official Mike Caputo told the National Journal. "We're a very Democratic union and we try to listen to the rank and file. They've sent a clear message that they're not supportive of the environmental rules that are being put in place." (They didn't like Romney's record either.)
In June UMWA President Cecil Roberts savaged EPA's Jackson on a West Virginia radio show. "The Navy SEALs shot Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and Lisa Jackson shot us in Washington," he said.
Environmentalists counter that coal demand overall is down as much due to the recession and competition from cheaper, abundant, cleaner-burning natural gas.
Trumka noted that coal production is up 7 percent under Obama and that his administration has spent $5 billion on "clean coal" technology (though this technology remains commercially unfeasible). Overall, employment in the mining industry is also up from 77,200 to 82,200, according to federal Labor Department data.
But those arguments are a hard sell even to Trumka's union brethren. Asked about the UMWA's nonendorsement, Trumka -- himself a former UMWA president -- refused to comment. "It's their decision and you should contact them on it," he said.
Sean Higgins (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.