All posts by Manuel Quinones

Manuel Quinones is an editor in Washington, D.C., and originally from Puerto Rico.

‘Sick industry’ struggles to take on China

Published Wednesday, September 9, 2015 in Greenwire.

MOUNTAIN PASS, Calif. — One large bag of the element lanthanum in powder form, like the ones littering a warehouse floor at Molycorp Inc.’s facility recently, would have cost roughly $100,000 in 2011, after China decided to clamp down on exports.

These days, the cost of that same 1-ton batch of rare earth oxide, found in dusty white plastic pouches branded with the company’s signature blue and green logo, has plummeted to about $8,000.

Low prices have pushed Molycorp, whose 800-acre facility is nestled between brown ragged mountains near the Mojave Desert, into federal bankruptcy protection.

More recently, the company announced it is planning to idle its flagship open pit mine and adjacent processing plant near the new, massive Ivanpah solar plant.

Geologists found Mountain Pass after World War II while looking for uranium. By the 1980s, it was meeting most of the world’s demand for rare earths. Part of the rare-earth-bearing rocks run under Interstate 15. But mining shut down in 2002 due to market woes and Chinese competition.

In 2010, Molycorp took the company public with significant fanfare in preparation for a new era. The 17 chemical elements are essential in numerous technologies. But many Americans didn’t know anything about them until predicted shortfalls sent policymakers and manufacturers into a frenzy.

This embattled site was then synonymous with America’s rare earths renaissance. Now Molycorp’s woes are evidence that China is not letting go of its grip on the market — and that technology companies are making do with less of the elements.

“This is a pretty sick industry,” Jon Hykawy, president of Stormcrow Capital, said during a gathering this summer of rare earth producers, sellers and users in Las Vegas, about an hour’s drive from Mountain Pass.

Beyond scaling back export controls following a World Trade Organization ruling against the country, China has been unable or unwilling to police its mines despite public efforts aimed at reorganizing and streamlining its lucrative rare earths business.

“I don’t think many of us realized the magnitude of that until last year,” Dudley Kingsnorth, one of the world’s foremost rare earths experts, said about illegal mining in China.

Kingsnorth, based in Australia, said Chinese targets for production of technologies with rare earth elements exceed legal mining supplies.

“So effectively, the Chinese government is mandating illegal mining,” he said.

Even though Molycorp was circumspect about its decision to idle Mountain Pass, a spokesman pointed to illegal mining in China as a principal reason for persistent low prices and the company’s woes.

Spokesman Jim Sims said illegal production benefits from the absence of regulation. “As a result, they can produce rare earths at artificially low prices,” he said, “often at a 50 percent discount to what it costs legitimate producers to make these materials.”

Before Molycorp’s announcement, the rare earths processing plant at Mountain Pass was working around the clock. The open pit mine was working only on a day shift. The company once said it would remain open.

Beyond illegal mining, China has also used its rare earths mining dominance to entice many Western companies to secure a foothold in the country in exchange for access.

Even though analysts disagree about the extent of the problem, Kingsnorth said, “The West is essentially losing those jobs to China.”

Molycorp said it would continue supplying its customers from rare earth production facilities in Estonia and China. At the end of last year, the company had 2,500 workers in roughly two dozen sites in 10 countries.

Hykawy said global technology businesses that rely on rare earths for their products are growing less concerned about Chinese reliance. It’s not what companies hoping to develop new U.S. mines want to hear.

“They’re telling me they’re happy to take it from China,” he said. “There’s a significant new willingness to buy from the Chinese.”

More with less

Many companies are happy taking rare earths from China if they need them at all. The high prices of 2010 and 2011 not only led to new mining but also sent companies scrambling to do more with less. And research efforts have made a difference.

When the Department of Energy was ramping up operations at its Critical Materials Institute in 2013, part of the federal government’s response to shortfall concerns, institute Director Alexander King said leaders wanted the latest in lighting technology.

But the T5 fluorescent lamps were more expensive and harder to access because of concerns about the supply of europium and terbium, two rare earths. DOE, he said, even backed off a rule promoting the use of T5s because of supply concerns.

Instead, the institute decided to use light-emitting diodes to address the shortfall. LEDs have smaller amounts of the hard-to-get rare earth elements.

“Fluorescent lighting is basically going away much faster than we thought,” King said.

When it comes to wind power, most turbines in the United States include a gearbox rather then more advanced and efficient direct-drive units. Developers point to the difficulty in accessing the rare earth elements neodymium and dysprosium needed for direct-drive.

Alexander Pulkert, an executive for German giant Siemens AG’s wind business unit, said rare earth users had a positive view of the world until 2009, when the Chinese first showed signs of clamping down.

“Things changed, as you know,” he said.

Now the company wants to design turbines that don’t have “heavy” rare earths, like dysprosium. They’re heavy because of their atomic signature. The term is also used as shorthand for the harder-to-get rare earths.

Neodymium-iron-boron magnets, which are essential in numerous technologies, use dysprosium to withstand high temperatures and keep magnetism. Pulkert said most of the cost of Siemens’ 2013 magnets came from its rare earths.

“All the heavies should get out of the magnet,” he said at the Las Vegas meeting, hosted by Argus Media. “We don’t like heavies in our magnet in the future.”

Price spikes were also a headache to the automotive industry, which relies on rare earths for everything from magnets and catalytic converters to polishing glass.

“Rare elements are used throughout the vehicle,” said Ford Motor Co. research engineer Leyi Zhu.

Zhu said in June that prices were “relatively stable, but they are still double or triple compared to the price before the crisis.” He added, “We don’t like these unpredictable price fluctuations.”

Among rare earths, Zhu pointed to neodymium and dysprosium as top concerns. For now, most people are fine with driving conventional cars. But hybrids are growing in popularity.

“Dysprosium is the single most expensive element used in our hybrid system,” Zhu said. Alternatives, efficiency or recycling haven’t made enough of an impact, he said.

Even though recycling makes only a small difference in the rare earths supply and demand picture, companies like Urban Mining Co. and REECycle Inc. are looking to capitalize on selling used rare earth materials.

In June, the University of Pennsylvania unveiled a system for obtaining neodymium and dysprosium from electronic waste. And last month, the Critical Materials Institute said U.S. Rare Earths Inc. had licensed its invention for recycling elements like neodymium, dysprosium and praseodymium.

‘A capital issue’

During the high times, rare earth advocates often spoke about restarting the entire rare earths supply chain in the United States “from mine to magnets.” In fact, Molycorp has long described itself as the world’s only mine-to-magnets company.

But like the Obama administration’s World Trade Organization complaint against China, DOE-backed research efforts are necessarily designed to help bring new mines online.

Anthony Marchese, chairman of Texas Rare Earth Resources Corp., says the drive for recycling and substitutes could further hurt new mining efforts. “In theory, the answer is yes,” he said, stressing that increased demand could blunt the impact.

Even with market headwinds and China’s efforts to keep its rare earths lead, Molycorp says it hopes for improved conditions to eventually reopen Mountain Pass. Molycorp’s U.S. rivals, meanwhile, are looking to avoid the company’s mistakes.

Marchese, who wants to develop a deposit on state-owned land in Texas, said Molycorp’s woes don’t necessarily mean other mining operations can’t come online in the coming years. He said prices don’t tell the whole story of Molycorp’s bankruptcy.

“The real story, in my opinion, is they forget to mention that they had a plant which was overdesigned in terms of capacity, was way, way over budget, and even today doesn’t work very well,” he said during an interview.

Marchese said at least some of Molycorp’s problems were evident years ago — mainly the lack of heavy rare earths deposits at Mountain Pass. Companies like Rare Element Resources Ltd., Ucore Rare Metals Inc. and Marchese’s Texas Rare Earth Resources Corp. are all looking to compete in that sphere.

Molycorp has always had a tense relationship with mining hopefuls. They have long wanted the United States to promote mining and reduce China’s dominance, while pointing to Molycorp’s weaknesses.

Stormcrow Capital’s Hykawy thinks they have a point. He asked, “Does anybody really believe with the consolidation in China that we’re free of export restrictions? Come on.”

Now that Molycorp is preparing to shut down Mountain Pass, the company is also touting the importance of government help in promoting diversity of supply. State property taxes while the mine is idle, for example, add stress to the company’s viability.

“This size of the rare earth resource is enormous, it exists right in our backyard,” Sims said, “and we can produce rare earth materials there with a very small environmental footprint.”

Molycorp has spent a fortune to create a rare earth separation and processing system — much more difficult and expensive than mining — with almost no discharges and dry tailings.

Capital expenditures in recent years surpass $1 billion. The company once hoped to process the equivalent of 40,000 tons of rare earth oxide per year. It hasn’t come close.

“Right now, the question for policymakers is how to best protect this national asset and enable it to stay in idle status, which would greatly speed the process and reduce the costs of a restart,” Sims said.

Sims also worries about the hundreds of workers who will likely lose their jobs because of the shutdown. They were also part of the U.S. rare earths renaissance.

“Not only is that a huge impact to each of the families involved, but it also represents a loss to the U.S. of intellectual capital and workforce skills that is difficult to measure,” Sims said.

Pro-mining lawmakers in the House have long backed legislation, H.R. 1937, to speed up mining permits. In the Senate, Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is pushing legislation, S. 883, to address permit delays but also reform the country’s mineral laws and boost technology.

Asked about potential help from the administration or Congress, Marchese said, “They don’t need to put any capital. It would help, but they don’t need to put any capital. What they can do is spotlight the effort.”

The Pentagon or defense committees on Capitol Hill could sound the alarm about securing a domestic supply for weapons systems. That could at least help some projects get elusive financing.

“It’s as simple as that,” said Marchese said about the difficulty of getting money during the down market. “It’s a capital issue.”

‘Industry in peril’

Analysts are divided on the future of rare earths outside China and whether any new mines can come online in the coming years — with or without government backing.

Low prices for a number of commodities have hurt mining economies like Canada and Australia and killed or delayed U.S. projects.

Still, rare earth pushers are not giving up. The company Mineria Activa is promoting a deposit in Chile, and a California entrepreneur is talking up a site near Twentynine Palms.

Ford’s Zhu is bullish on demand, essential to helping mining and processing inside and outside China. He pointed to research suggesting a 700 percent demand increase for neodymium and 2,600 percent demand increase for dysprosium in the coming years.

A big driver will be from technologies meant to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, said Zhu. “We should have a very strong demand for these two elements in the future,” he said.

Kingsnorth, also a Curtin University professor, said the landscape was “very limited” for producers outside China. “China is dominant,” he said of the global market.

Hykawy said high prices stormed the market. “It worked to reduce or eliminate demand,” he said. “That reduction or elimination has been made quasi-permanent” in some cases. “High prices fix high prices,” the analyst said.

But Hykawy said “low prices are supposed to fix low prices.” The question is how soon and how significantly. “Junior mining outside China, we tell ourselves what we want to hear,” he said.

Elbert Loois, business development manager for Rohstoff Allianz, which focused on the availability of raw materials for industry, said “we don’t do so-called China-bashing.”

At the same time, he said countries and companies have not done enough to secure an “insurance option” for rare earth supplies outside China. “We’re still far away of where we should be,” he said.

Loois called for more cooperation between industrial countries and technology companies to help promote rare earth mining efforts worldwide.

“Market forces will not generate adequate solutions by themselves,” he said, contradicting free marketeers who say the current situation is an example of the market working.

“This industry is in peril. Outside of China. Inside of China, it’s going to be fine,” said Hykawy, especially if prices rise. “We can’t play and try to play on a level playing field with China. We need to innovate. We need to undercut them on cost.”

Kingsnorth described the rare earths business as being in a bunker, but he said, “I hope it’s not too long before we’re in the green and get the ball in the hole.”

Reports of property damage mount as Pa. longwall mines proliferate

Published Thursday, September 29, 2011 in NewYorkTimes.com.

WAYNESBURG, Pa. — A surge in mining damage to waterways, houses and roads has sparked a fierce debate in southwestern Pennsylvania’s coal region about whether regulations are strong enough to protect property and natural resources.

At issue is a modern, mechanized take on a centuries-old mining technique that shears coal away from underground seams in massive panels that are generally hundreds of feet thick and a mile or so long.

That technique, known as longwall mining, now produces some 40 percent of all coal from U.S. underground mines, up from 5 percent in 1980, according to federal statistics. In Pennsylvania, longwall produced 38 million tons of the 48 million tons produced by underground mining in 2009, the latest full year for which statistics are available.

But while mechanized longwall mining has been a boon to coal producers, it has been a headache in recent years for many residents of Greene and Washington counties, near the West Virginia line. They say mining being done by rumbling, behemoth machines in recent years has damaged buildings, sucked water from ponds and streams and cracked roads.

“Longwall is worse than an earthquake,” said Leigh Shields, owner of Shields Herb and Flower Farm, which is patrolled by peacocks and a pet emu in rural Greene County. A Consol Energy Inc. longwall project a decade ago, he said, led to a subsidence that lowered parts of his property as much as 4 feet, moved trees and cracked his home’s basement floor.

Longwall mining, many residents say, caused the rupture of a dam at Greene County’s Ryerson Station State Park, whose lake — once a popular spot for boating and fishing — remains dry. Whether Consol operations damaged the park is currently being weighed by a state court.

“A lot of locals came down and started grabbing fish and taking them to local ponds,” activist Terri Davin said in an interview, discussing what happened when state workers drained the lake after the 2005 breach. “They had garbage cans and they were just throwing dead fish there.”

Aimee Erickson, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens Coal Council, said the rumbling of longwall mining under a house jangles nerves as well as cracks foundations. “You could actually put an egg on the counter and watch it just roll off,” she said.

A University of Pittsburgh study this year found that from 2003 to 2008 reported land damage from longwall operations increased 86 percent and building damage increased 31 percent over damage reported the previous five-year period.

It took coal companies an average of 207 days to resolve reported structural problems and 246 days for land damage, the report says. Companies took 321 days, on average, to address problems with wells, springs and ponds.

The report was prepared under a 1994 state law, Act 54, which was aimed at addressing problems caused by longwall mining and making sure companies help prevent problems, repair damage or compensate residents. Mining critics here say the law is not strong enough.

“It has been a catastrophic failure,” said attorney Michael Nixon, a Citizens Coal Council board member.

State officials and mining industry representatives disagree. They do not deny that longwall mining is causing damage, but they maintain the system is working to ensure repairs or proper compensation.

“Most landowners should be thankful for Act 54,” George Ellis, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Association, an industry group, said in an interview. “If we damage it, we take care of it.”

As he rebutted claims about longwall mining and Act 54, Ellis raised his voice. The law, he said, represents a compromise between activists and industry.

“There is a lot of misinformation,” he said. “The fear mongers are wrong. The sky is not falling.”

‘If you get a settlement, leave’

Critics of longwall mining say Act 54 is inferior to the 1960s-vintage law that emphasized damage prevention.

Act 54 and its restoration mandate, critics say, gives companies more leeway to extract more coal and discourages another traditional undergound mining method, room-and-pillar mining, which keeps more coal underground and provides more support to properties above.

Shields, the nursery owner, said settlements provided to landowners by coal companies are mere Band-Aids for problems that mining causes. Money he got from Consol in a settlement is gone.

“It was a mistake. It bit us in the ass,” he said of the settlement. “That’s exactly what the coal companies wanted.”

And 10 years after damage was done to his property, Shields said he is still waiting for Consol to honor a pre-mining agreement that requires the company to restore a gas connection that he said he needs to keep his greenhouse plants warm.

“If you get a settlement, just leave,” he said. “It will all be broken again.”

Schmid & Co., a Wayne, Pa.-based environmental consulting firm hired by the Citizens Coal Council, found agreements between a mining company and property owners often fail to solve problems on water supply issues.

The effect of longwall mining on streams is of particular concern to environmentalists, who say the practice can forever — and they say illegally — hurt waterways, turning streams into ponds or dry trenches.

Ben Stout, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University of Wheeling, W.Va., said his studies of streams in this area show waterways suffering lasting and sometimes irreparable damage. He collects data on organisms living in regional creeks and streams.

“It’s a data-rich environment,” he said in a recent interview. “I like a lot of data.”

Streams that have been longwalled, he said, have fewer or different organisms living in them. He points at a stream he said has never recovered from mining underneath.

“We study them as indicators of the quality of the stream. They’re what make the streams function,” Stout said. “These are also indicators of permanence and also sensitivity. Especially the mayflies are sensitive to pollution and changes in the environment.”

Drinking water wells are being affected. It is common in southwestern Pennsylvania to see next to houses water tanks provided by coal companies as temporary water supplies.

Also vulnerable are historic properties, such as a house built in 1815 that Margie Manchester is trying to protect at her organic farm in Avella. Relatives sold the coal rights under the stately brick manse in 1917, a common story in southwestern Pennsylvania.

“They never expected longwall mining,” Manchester said of those early 20th century landowners.

Such threats to property and the environment are driving away coal-region natives, said Darvin, the anti-mining activist. “We’re losing population left and right here,” she said.

But retreat is not an option for Erickson, the Coal Council’s executive director.

“You know what,” she said, “I refuse to leave.”

Defending Act 54

Thomas Callaghan, director of the state’s Bureau of Mining and Reclamation, maintains that properties and natural resources get more protection under Act 54 than they did under the old mining law.

The old law, he said, provided no protection or restoration for structures built after 1966, instead allowing owners to buy coal for support.

“What Act 54 does is it allows undermining, and replacement and repair versus the limited prevention standard of the old law,” he said. “Our experience so far with Act 54 has been substantially positive.”

And Ellis of the coal association said the industry is capable of protecting historic houses. The industry, he said, was able to prevent damage on a house built in the mid-1800s and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We were able to work with [the owners],” Ellis said. “The house is still in one piece. There were no stories afterwards because nothing happened.”

Workers with the mining company Alpha Natural Resources like to boast about their relationship with property owners with whom they have worked.

Alpha’s Jeremy Rafferty, who serves as a liaison between the company and landowners who are expected to see property damage, said property owners have a host of options, including reporting problems to state regulators.

Rafferty said he has shared strong handshakes with people he’s worked with. While they are not happy to endure longwall mining near their properties, he said, they were satisfied with his treatment of them.

Alpha employees also boast about the streams they have helped rebuild.

“Alpha goes above and beyond,” Rafferty said.

Rafferty said he and other Alpha representatives work to develop relationships with landowners. The process involves advanced notification, a pre-mining survey of properties, numerous meetings and constant communication.

Richard Belding, 70, a property owner who endured an Alpha longwall project in 2006, said he tried to set ground rules up front in his dealings with the company.

“There is going to be no screaming and yelling, and when it’s done, we’re going to have a picnic,” he recalled.

Belding said he enjoys the new house he bought with settlement money from Alpha. He enjoys watering his flowers and spending time on his front porch, waving at neighbors as they drive by.

“Oh, I love it. I don’t miss the old house at all,” he said, explaining how it took some convincing with his wife, who has since died. “It’s not untraumatic. You have decisions to make.”

Another property owner, Richard Barcheise and his wife, a former Alpha employee, decided to have the company try to prevent damage — through techniques like digging ditches — and do repairs. The company had to fix the driveway, cracks on the wall and floor, and re-do part of the roof.

“I’m hard to satisfy,” he said. “I’m very well satisfied.”

‘Cheap electricity’

Current state permits allow Alpha at its Cumberland and Emerald mines to extract coal from roughly 50,000 acres under highways, houses and waterways.

The longwall mining star is the continuous miner, a whirring wheel that cuts the coal from the wall and sprays water to prevent explosions. A conveyor belt moves coal out of the mine, which is about 1,000 feet underground.

“This is cheap electricity,” said one worker as he watched pieces of coal rolling away from the continuous miner.

The continuous mining wheel moves back and forth, scrubbing the wall as it cuts the coal. Meanwhile, the machine surrounding it — which includes roof supports and is large enough for miners to walk inside — moves forward electronically to push the wheel closer to the seam and cut even more coal.

Roof supports that are part of the machinery make the process safer, industry boosters say. Roof falls are a major cause of death in mining. And the process extracts so much more coal, in such an efficient way that for coal companies it is worth using the method even if they are liable for damage above.

“In any extraction industry, you are going to have damage. The issue is to fix it,” the Pennsylvania Coal Association’s Ellis said.

“Subsidence from room and pillar occurs 40, 50 years down the road. This was one of the benefits of longwall mining.”

But people like Erickson say the longall benefits are all for the mining companies — and, most recently, for gas drilling companies that have moved in to tap Marcellus Shale. Drilling trucks and equipment have become fixtures here.

Erickson, who said she has already been approached by a gas “land man” for access to her property, described the situation in harsh terms.

“It’s like being raped by one person,” she said, “and then raped again.”

Democrats, like mining, may never fully recover in Appalachia

Published Friday, October 17, 2014 in Greenwire.

WHITESBURG, Ky. — Sitting at his desk in the Letcher County Courthouse in this Appalachian community of about 2,000 people, Judge Executive Jim Ward frets over the county’s finances.

The sharp downturn in eastern Kentucky coal mining has kicked thousands of workers off the job and slashed severance tax revenues by $3 million during the county’s last spending cycle out of an $11 million budget.

“It has devastated our region, our county,” Ward said during a recent interview. “We are in survival mode,” he said of a county with an unemployment rate above 11 percent, and asked, “What do you do? How do you survive, without making drastic cuts, without having to shut down basic services?”

“We’ve been looking at other avenues and diversifying somewhat, but still the jobs that are coming here now are not going to be the high-paying jobs like the mining jobs.”

The coal downturn, which has been particularly painful in central Appalachia, has become a key talking point in several highly contested political races. And President Obama’s mining and climate change policies have given Republicans ammunition and angered many area Democrats — enough for the party to forever lose parts of its base in this part of the world.

“I feel like the national party has run off and left me. And that’s being honest,” said Ward, a Democrat elected to his post as the county’s top leader. “I just feel like they have forgotten the grass-roots Democrats that put them where they are.”

For more than a decade, Appalachia has been trending Republican because of national Democratic views on things like guns and social issues. For many residents, coal is another strike against a party they’ve been relying on — and voting for — since the New Deal.

“Our county is probably 3-1 Democrat but probably not going to vote that way,” Ward said. “That’s just an opinion from what I hear people say.”

Indeed, there are 11,954 registered Democrats in Letcher County, compared with 3,870 Republicans. Democrats also have a significant registration advantage in the nearby coal field counties of Harlan and Pike.

Democrats top Republicans in voter registration statewide, too. But a new Gallup Inc. poll released today showed more Kentuckians identified as Republicans or leaned toward the GOP, a change from previous years.

If Democrats decide to stay home or vote Republican, it could make a difference for Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrats’ nominee to take on Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

Al Cross, a University of Kentucky journalism professor and longtime political observer, said Democrats are indeed risking Appalachian votes to protect the environment and stop climate change. “They are risking them for a worthy cause,” Cross said during an interview.

The problem, Cross said, is that many people feel the rules are coming down like a “sledgehammer.” The Obama administration touts dialogue and flexibility for states, but Cross said it is “sadly mistaken” if it thinks that will change the political repercussions.

Administration officials also point to market issues for coal’s woes. Politicians often blame the White House for all of Appalachia’s problems, but even climate skeptics and GOP sympathizers here understand the problem is not that simple.

Still, they see the administration as having turned a deaf ear to their concerns. And even though Obama talked about giving “special care to people and communities” affected by the clean energy transition during his Georgetown University climate speech last year, Appalachians feel forgotten.

“We really haven’t seen any direct evidence of that,” Cross said. “It does not seem like the administration has delivered on that explicit promise.”

The long-standing Appalachian Regional Commission has since 2010 been working with other federal agencies to coordinate efforts at boosting the area’s economy. In Congress, Reps. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) are pushing legislation to aid displaced miners.

In Kentucky last year, a bipartisan group of politicians launched the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative. And in West Virginia, lawmakers are touting the Southern Coalfields Organizing and Revitalizing the Economy (SCORE) effort.

But regulations, not diversifying the economy, have been the main focus on the campaign trail, particularly among Republican candidates.

Speaking to a roomful of community and business leaders at the posh Griffin Gate Marriott Hotel in Lexington last week, McConnell said, “We have a depression here in eastern Kentucky.” The Senate’s GOP leader said turning back Obama administration regulations was at the “top of my list.”

And speaking at a packed rally in rural Estill County, about an hour’s drive away from Lexington, Grimes stressed a point she’s had to repeat numerous times: “Barack Obama is not on the ballot, it’s Alison Lundergan Grimes.”

Fifth District Rep. Hal Rogers (R) has long represented Kentucky’s eastern coal field counties — and his district gave Obama a stunningly low 23 percent of the vote in 2012. The neighboring 6th District, which includes Lexington and Estill, was in Democratic hands between 2004 and 2013, and Obama took 42 percent there two years ago.

But even though the area is far from most of the eastern mines, the coal debate helped new GOP Rep. Andy Barr grab the district last cycle. Estill, which has more registered Democrats than Republicans, favored Barr by a significant margin.

GOP close to taking W.Va. House

Kentucky is a divided state. Most of its congressional delegation is Republican. So is the state Senate. But the House and the governor’s mansion are in Democratic hands.

In neighboring West Virginia, the GOP rise is a more recent trend. During the 1990s the state’s entire congressional delegation was Democratic.

Unless current momentum shifts, Republicans are likely to see Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) replace retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D), and former Maryland state Sen. Alex Mooney (R) replace Capito in the 2nd District.

But Republican hopes don’t stop there. In Oak Hill, a small city north of Beckley, several GOP candidates gathered in a tight white-and-beige room in a community center last week to discuss what could be.

Evan Jenkins, the Republican state senator campaigning to unseat 19-term Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall, scoffed at the national Democratic agenda.

“There’s nothing about that agenda that sits well with the people of West Virginia,” he said confidently. “It’s time for a change.”

Jenkins switched from Republican to Democrat early in his political career in the early 1990s. It was probably a good choice. Back then, Democrats were more than 65 percent of the electorate, according to registration statistics.

“When I turned 18, my dad was a Democrat and his dad was a Democrat,” Jenkins said during an interview. “My father obviously lived through the Great Depression, and there’s a lot of legacy from the ’30s and the ’40s.”

But while Democrats still dominate, especially in the southern coal fields, more voters are switching to the Republican column or declaring themselves members of no party. There were roughly 687,000 Democrats statewide in November 2008. Late last year the number was closer to 638,000. It’s now around 607,000.

Jenkins switched back to Republican last year. “The issue of Second Amendment, the issue of health care, the issue of immigration, the issue of the coal industry,” he said. “This agenda has been so devastating to the values and beliefs and the jobs of who we are in West Virginia.”

West Virginia’s new Republican attorney general, Patrick Morrisey, joined Jenkins in Oak Hill and spoke about pushing the state’s Democratic leaders to embrace more litigation against Obama administration rulemaking.

A number of local GOP candidates joined the pair, hoping to ride their coattails. House of Delegates candidate William Hughes spoke about his community of Pax having lost much of its population and now dealing with coal layoffs. Another candidate, Tom Fast, called for a fundamental change in the way things are done in the Democratic-controlled state capital of Charleston.

“I’ve had countless people say they are registered Democrat but are not going to vote Democrat,” said Jenkins. “We are five [candidates] away from having the House of Delegates change parties for the first time in 83 years.”

Race factor

The last time both Kentucky and West Virginia voted for a Democrat for president was during the Clinton years in the 1990s. Still, Democrats had an edge in Appalachian coal field counties. In 2000 and 2004, several of them went for Democratic candidates.

But when Obama was first on the ballot in 2008, coal field counties in Kentucky and most in West Virginia voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). And in 2012, Obama lost every single West Virginia county.

Analysts and area residents will say race has at least something to do with Obama’s deep unpopularity in West Virginia and elsewhere in Appalachia.

“There’s enough people around here who are prejudiced and don’t like him because he’s black,” said longtime Democratic activist Dolores Rozzi, who has lived around the country but settled in Huntington, W.Va., about a decade ago.

Cross said Appalachians would have been upset with any politician who hurt coal. “There would have been upset, concern and people would have been dismayed and they would have felt let down,” he said. “But with Obama, they already didn’t like the guy. I don’t think this is primarily about race, but I think race is an element.”

Rozzi was manning the information desk the other day at the area’s Democratic headquarters downtown, a large room full of signs for candidates like Rahall. There was also a picture of Obama on the wall, one Rozzi put up herself.

“I think the Republicans were sick and tired of losing elections. I think they’ve geared up. They think they’re going to win this one,” said Rozzi. Asked whether she was feeling pessimistic, the fiercely loyal Democrat said, “We’re not feeling bad about anything right now.”

In Kentucky, Shayne Puckett, Estill County Democratic chairman, was also optimistic about his party’s chances. “In the political world right now, there is so much momentum behind the Democrat Party,” he said during the Grimes rally. “The Republican Party, all they have done for the last six, eight, 10 years is say no, no, no.”

What about Obama’s impact on local races? “I think that horse has been beaten enough,” Puckett said. “And American voters are waking up and realizing that may not be the wagon they want to jump on.”

Democrats say they may regain momentum in Appalachia after Obama leaves office. During the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, both Kentucky and West Virginia picked Hillary Clinton over Obama by significant margins. If she runs for president again in 2016, Clinton will try to woo those voters back into the fold.

Rozzi thinks Clinton can make inroads in her community. “I think it will be a new air to have a woman president,” she said. “Women do things so well.”

But both pro-coal advocates and environmentalists see the Clintons with skepticism. Former President Clinton has spoken in favor of Obama’s climate agenda but has campaigned with pro-coal Grimes. Hillary Clinton, who campaigned with Grimes on Wednesday, made pro-coal statements during her failed presidential run.

“I think the Clintons believe they can carry Kentucky and West Virginia. But it’s going to take some work,” Cross said. “And they may not be willing to work that hard for that small number of electoral votes.”

Even though pro-coal votes may still matter in local races, they didn’t make enough of a difference in the past presidential election, where the industry was counting on an Obama defeat.

Phil Smith, government affairs chief for the United Mine Workers of America, which is supporting a variety of pro-coal Democrats but has distanced itself from Obama, said the importance of pro-coal voters to Appalachian races doesn’t seem to be part of the administration’s political calculation.

“People who live in rural areas are like people everywhere else. They want a secure job, a decent standard of living for their families, safe and robust communities, and the ability to live in peace,” Smith said.

“To the extent that a future Democratic Party can project the message that it stands for those things, it can be competitive. But as things stand right now in rural America, and especially in Appalachia, this administration and the national Democratic Party is not sending that message. And that leaves state and local candidates vulnerable.”