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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration's moves to more strictly police the mining and burning of coal have been more modest -- and in some ways far less successful -- than they are portrayed by the industry's public relations barrage and by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, according to regulatory experts who have closely followed the issues.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules to limit toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants were softened. A proposal to curb greenhouse gas emissions from electrical generators exempts existing plants altogether.
Labor Department plans for key miner safety and health improvements, including a centerpiece rule to prevent deadly black lung disease, continue to be delayed.
Efforts to crack down on mountaintop removal avoided concrete rule changes, a move that left the EPA open to legal challenge. The first-ever federal standards on handling and disposal of toxic coal ash from power plants have been stalled for more than two years.
"In the big picture, I don't see a huge shift," said Pat Parenteau, who teaches environmental policy at the Vermont Law School. "I see an administration making some strides toward toughening the rules on coal, but I don't see [President] Obama's policies having a major impact."
Some of Obama's policies were thrown out in court, and the administration appears to have slowed down others in the face of harsh opposition from the industry's friends in Congress, especially since Republicans took over the House in the 2010 midterm elections.
Last year, Obama himself stepped in to block new EPA smog standards that would have forced reductions in power plant pollution. The president talked about "the importance of reducing regulatory burdens" as the economy continues to recover.
"Things haven't changed," said Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor who studies workplace and environmental rules and is president of the think tank Center for Progressive Reform. "I just think that [Obama administration officials] have bought the Republican line on regulations hook, line and sinker."
As the Nov. 6 general election approaches, the campaign to paint Obama as an anti-coal president continues to heat up.
Romney has visited coalfield communities in Ohio, Virginia and Colorado, campaigning in part on his promise to loosen Obama rules on the industry. Coal companies and related political groups are funding massive television campaign ads against Obama. In a close Electoral College race, relatively small coal communities in Southeastern Ohio and Southwestern Virginia could help decide the election. And industry officials are promoting fear of what they say would be an even more aggressive Obama regulatory agenda during a second term.
Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, said last week that Obama had promised "to develop 'clean-coal' technology," but that the administration's policies have "skewed the market against coal."
"Governor Romney and President Obama must speak to those voters, and voters across America, who have counted on coal to provide affordable electricity, jobs and a better standard of living for themselves and their families," Quinn said in a statement.
In recent days, both candidates increasingly have been trying to do just that.
During last week's debate, Romney went after Obama when the president said that coal jobs have increased during his time in office.
"This has not been Mr. Oil or Mr. Gas or Mr. Coal," Romney said. "Talk to the people that are working in those industries. I was in coal country. People grabbed my arms and say, 'Please, save my job.'"
Obama's response has been to try to paint Romney as having reversed himself on coal, after complaining that power-plant pollution "kills people." Obama also has touted his own administration's investments in "clean-coal" programs aimed at reducing dangerous emissions.
The United Mine Workers union has not issued an endorsement, saying instead, "Neither candidate has yet demonstrated that he will be on the side of UMW members and their families as president."
Nationwide and in Appalachia, the number of coal miners working actually did increase during the first three years of the Obama presidency. However, since January, a string of layoffs has been announced, and coal-mining employment in West Virginia alone dropped by about 1,300 jobs in the second quarter of 2012, according to Labor Department data. More layoffs likely are on the way.
Most experts say the impact of regulatory changes is overblown, and point to other factors behind Appalachian coal's decline: Thinner and lower-quality seams are left, meaning production and productivity are dropping. Tough competition from inexpensive natural gas and other coal basins makes matters worse.
Writing in the peer-reviewed Electricity Journal in July, researchers from the think tank Resources for the Future concluded that low natural gas prices have had "a substantially larger impact" -- five or six times greater -- than new EPA regulations on coal's decline.