- “We’ve Got Jobs. Let’s Fight for Them”Coal, Clean Air, and the Politics of Antienvironmentalism
In May 1988, millions of Americans tuned into a special edition of the Oprah Winfrey Show broadcast from a small town in southeastern Ohio, a region hard hit by industrial and mining losses. “They were middle class people, once earning good money in the coal mines [and in the steel mills,” the show’s opening sequence declared as Rust Belt imagery flashed across the screen. “But the rug was pulled out from under them. They never imagined themselves standing in welfare lines, never imagined relying on food stamps.” As they discussed the problems of job losses in the area, many in the audience, especially those laid-off from the region’s mines, mills, and power plants blamed new environmental regulations, particularly the Clean Air Act as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and envisioned a return to the industrial past. “The whole bottom line is: knock the EPA out!” railed one audience member. “We want work. We don’t want the clean air. We want the factories back. We want the mines back.”1
As this thirty-year-old example suggests, the debate over the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which became a flashpoint in the 2016 presidential campaign, is the latest in a series of political, cultural, and economic battles that have been fought since the passage of the Clean Air Act (CAA) in 1970 during the height of the postwar environmental movement. These tensions were especially apparent in the periods around significant amendments to the CAA in 1977 and 1990 as well as in the late 1990s and in recent years as presidents Clinton and Obama sought to join international climate-change agreements. Indeed, rhetoric denouncing the “War on Coal” now found on billboards, yard signs, and the editorial pages of conservative news outlets had its origins in the 1978 gubernatorial race between Ohio’s long-serving Republican governor James “Jim” Rhodes and his up-and-coming lieutenant governor, Democrat Richard Celeste. Rhodes cast himself as the defender of jobs and painted Celeste as a supporter of “EPA mandates that are forcing Ohio mines to close.” “We’re not going to roll over and play dead,” Rhodes declared in August 1978. “I’ll fight with anyone in the government, and it’s time we take on the EPA,” agreed John Guzek, district president of the United Mine Workers of America. “We’ve got jobs. Let’s fight for them.”2 [End Page 6]
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This simplistic but powerful rhetoric resonated with local, regional, and national opponents of environmentalism, including Ronald Reagan, who eventually embraced Rhodes’s ideology as a Rust Belt counterpoint to the so-called Sage Brush Rebellion in the West during his first presidential campaign. Earlier, in the 1960s, Rhodes, the state’s longest serving governor and “one of the great political minds in Ohio,” had been forced to walk a careful line during debates over state regulation of coal surface mines, a legislative initiative which benefited local landscapes and thus had significant support among voters. However, passage of the CAA, which posed a particular threat to Ohio’s high-sulfur coal industry, prompted Rhodes to craft a hardline message that combined a defense of local jobs with attacks on overbearing EPA bureaucrats who kept economic growth “bottled up in bureaucracy.” Rhodes was instrumental in helping Reagan win Ohio, and the governor’s top lieutenant in fighting the CAA, Ohio EPA director James McAvoy continued to help lead the environmental opposition from a number of key positions within the new Republican administration and later as executive director of the quasi-public National Coal Council. Going forward, there were clear threads carrying this jobs-versus-the-environment political narrative through the hardening of policy positions, especially in the Republican Party, and to the contemporary wave of antienvironmental populism that helped secure the presidency for Donald Trump.3 [End Page 7]
Narrating the history of the environmental opposition has...