Democrats Find Rough Sledding in Coal States; Obama's Policies on Energy, Clean Air Are Straining Relations with Voters in States with Struggling Coal-Based Economies

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ST. CLAIRSVILLE, OHIO - Friends of coal are certain they know the enemy.

They fault President Barack Obama and his Environmental Protection Agency for new clean air rules they deride as a devastating blow to a multibillion-dollar industry that has been the lifeblood of Appalachia for generations. The agency standards imposed earlier this year tightened limits on current coal powered- plant emissions while guidelines on greenhouse gases could affect new plants as early as 2013.

Along the rolling hills of this tiny Ohio town, campaign signs for judges, state legislators and county officials crowd lawns. As the road curves toward the interstate, one banner overshadows them all: "End the war on coal. Fire Obama."

Barb Swan, who runs Swan's Sport Shop on West Main Street, is a registered Democrat and daughter of a coal miner. She won't be voting for Obama and she won't back Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, who she contends puts the president's energy policies over the interests of his constituents.

"If you have a district that's coal, you fight for coal," argued Swan, 67.

Obama's moves on clean air and fossil fuels have complicated the lives of Democrats in coal-rich states that count on mining for jobs and economic growth, with incumbents and candidates adopting drastically different strategies to ensure their own political survival.

In West Virginia, where the president is wildly unpopular, Sen. Joe Manchin boasts about his unyielding opposition to the EPA and his confrontations with the administration. In his latest campaign ad, Manchin - rifle in hand - alludes to a previous commercial in which he shoots Obama's bill to cap greenhouse gases from coal- burning power plants. The senator says the state has enough coal and natural gas to provide energy and jobs for decades.

In Republican-leaning Indiana, Democratic Senate candidate Joe Donnelly ignored Obama's objections and embraced a House GOP bill to undo the EPA rules. In swing state Ohio, Brown espouses an all-of- the-above energy policy similar to Obama's and dismisses claims of a "war on coal" as Republican talking points.

The White House, for its part, insists the criticism of its record on coal is unfounded.

"The president has made clear that coal has an important role to play in our energy economy today and it will in the future, which is why this administration has worked to make sure that moving forward we can continue to rely on a broad range of domestic energy sources from oil and gas, to wind and solar, to nuclear, as well as clean coal," said Clark Stevens, a White House spokesman.

The administration points to a 31 percent increase in coal exports and greater flexibility in enforcing the new standards. The economic prospects for coal, Stevens said, "reflect the independent, financial decisions that utilities are making in response to the increase in cheap, abundant natural gas."

Coal's woes do extend far beyond the new EPA rules.

Natural gas is plentiful, less expensive and more environmentally friendly. A rush is on in the same Appalachian towns where coal has been king to claim natural gas mineral rights in the region's Marcellus and Utica shale reserves. Out-of-town lawyers have descended upon the courthouse in the Belmont County seat to pore over decades-old deeds and titles, some dating to the late 1800s, as they figure out which families should get checks.

"The hallways are filled," said Kent Moore, the former Republican Party chairman in Belmont. "They're moving from one county to another."

Last year, In 2011,U.S. production of natural gas surpassed coal production for the first time in 20 years, according to the government's Energy Information Administration.

China's economic slowdown and the diminishing demand for the top- grade coal to make steel has affected coal in the eastern United States. …