One of the few main streets in New Straitsville, Ohio, on a quiet Friday morning in September.
One of the few main streets in New Straitsville, Ohio, on a quiet Friday morning in September. The small village is known for a springtime moonshine festival and for a historic underground coal fire set in 1884. Credit: Kathiann M. Kowalski

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A longtime coal industry operative is facing off against a health policy expert for an open congressional seat in a sprawling district that contrasts Ohio’s potential growth in renewable energy with the shrinking market for coal.

The outcome of the election matters because the winner could help steer federal policy either toward or away from clean energy before the midterm elections next year. The results will also affect the current balance of Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives. And despite redistricting, the winner could get a bump from being an incumbent in next year’s elections.

Democratic candidate Allison Russo of Upper Arlington and Republican Mike Carey of Columbus are vying for the 15th congressional district seat left vacant when Republican Steve Stivers left in May to head the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. Stivers held the seat since 2011, although his immediate predecessor in the red-leaning district was Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy.

The lobster-shaped district stretches from well-to-do Columbus suburbs in parts of its western “claws’ to small towns, farms and rolling hills in Appalachian counties to the east.

“This is a huge section of the state, and it has a lot of different types of communities in it,” said Miranda Leppla, vice president of energy policy for the Ohio Environmental Policy Action Fund. “A huge part of it is right in the heart of where a lot of the utility-scale solar projects are going,” with other sections hosting some of the state’s recent oil and gas development. Overlapping some of those areas are counties with a long history in coal mining.

Russo currently serves in the Ohio House and is the ranking member of the House Health Committee. She holds a doctorate degree in health policy and works as a consultant on health care financing and care needs for veterans, military families, seniors and vulnerable populations.

Carey has more than two decades of experience in coal industry lobbying and legislative affairs. After 13 years as president of the Ohio Coal Association, he became vice president of government affairs for Murray Energy. The Trump-backed candidate continued in that role for American Consolidated Natural Resources, Inc. after the conclusion of Murray Energy’s bankruptcy case.

Carey was a registered lobbyist on Ohio’s scandal-tainted House Bill 6, although his campaign has claimed Murray Energy was neutral on the legislation. The law subsidizes two 1950s coal-fired power plants to the tune of $233,000 per day.

As their backgrounds suggest, Carey and Russo have very different views of Ohio’s energy future.

Russo hopes to “use targeted investments in clean energy to help Ohio grow over the coming decades,” drawing upon Ohio’s tradition of “powering the rest of the country as a leader of industry and automation.”

At the same time, “we cannot turn our backs on the men and women working in legacy energy industries that power our communities,” Russo said. “These are people’s jobs and livelihoods.”

Carey did not respond to repeated requests for an interview or comments for this article. His campaign website includes a section titled “American Energy Independence,” with a stock photo of two white coal miners.

“Our nation is blessed with an abundance of coal, natural gas, and oil that provide the base load electricity needed to power our lives and our future,” the Trump-endorsed candidate’s website said. “We must invest in new fossil fuel technologies as well as renewables because we need more electricity to run a 21st century economy, not less.”

“I’m looking forward, my opponent is looking backwards,” Russo said.

Past, present and future

Surrounded by Coal Township in Perry County, the village of New Straitsville has hosted an annual moonshine festival for the past 50 years. Long before that, sabotage by striking miners started an underground coal fire there in 1884. The fire was still burning under part of Wayne National Forest in 2003 and may be burning still.

Ohio’s coal mining industry nonetheless thrived in Perry County and elsewhere in the 15th district. But state employment in coal mining reached its peak more than a century ago. Automation and other advances in technology explain much of the drop.

Yet demand for Ohio’s coal has also fallen, especially with increased competition from natural gas during the past decade. As of 2010, the Ohio Coal Association reported that the state produced 27.2 million short tons of coal, with a combined 3.4 million short tons produced in the 15th district’s Perry and Vinton counties.

In contrast, “the 15th district represents 28% of all the utility-scale solar investment in the entire state,” said Dan Sawmiller, an advisor to the NRDC Action Fund.

As of Oct. 7, the Ohio Power Siting Board’s solar farms map shows 2,152 megawatts of approved or potential solar projects for the 15th district, out of 7773 MW for the whole state. Although Senate Bill 52 singled out new solar and wind projects for additional licensing hurdles, solar projects that were already under development when the new law took effect this month are exempt from certain requirements.

Using a rule of thumb of 1.25 construction jobs for each megawatt, Sawmiller estimated that approval of all those projects would provide roughly 2,690 jobs. That estimate doesn’t include additional jobs from related economic activity over the course of several decades, described in an Ohio University analysis released last year.

“Solar is probably one of the fastest-growing industries in the 15th congressional district,” Sawmiller said, noting that he would hope a candidate would support such job creation. “Voters should be looking at the environmental statements and records of any candidate,” he added.

“It’s important to think about how we move forward to being more climate-resilient, and how we move toward a clean energy future that also makes sure that we listen to all those here in Ohio,” Leppla said, “including all our environmental justice communities and communities who are going to need to transition away from fossil fuel energy eventually.”

Proposals to assist people in those communities include the American Energy Worker Opportunity Act, introduced earlier this month by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and others, as well as policy initiatives from the Reimagine Appalachia coalition. 

“Folks in this district have lost jobs through no fault of their own and need the training to gain new skills and career services necessary to fill in-demand jobs,” Russo said. “Training programs should be focused on growing high-demand sectors such as clean energy, advanced manufacturing, and skilled trades — helping workers of all kinds to find good-quality, sustainable jobs in an ever-changing economy.”Whoever wins the race this year will serve one year to fill the rest of Stivers’ unexpired term. All Ohio congressional districts will be up for election next year, but the state will lose one of its current 16 seats as a result of the 2020 census. Ohio’s redistricting commission has until Oct. 31 to draw the new map, which will last only four years if it fails to gain bipartisan support.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify Dan Sawmiller’s title.

Kathiann M. Kowalski

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.