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Opinion: Columnists

Manhattan Moment: The amazing competition for coal and oil jobs in swing states

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Who would have predicted that one of the most contentious issues in the 2012 presidential campaign would be which candidate is more bullish about coal, oil and natural gas?

Some supporters were stunned at President Obama's insistence in the debates that he deserves credit for America's recent oil and gas boom, which is taking place almost entirely on private and state lands, as well his vocal support for clean coal -- coal, for goodness sake, the pinata of the anti-carbon crowd! Obama even attempted to paint GOP nominee Mitt Romney as having vestigial anti-coal sentiments! What a change from 2008.

This has emerged from this election's de facto watch-phrase: "It's about the jobs, stupid." Both Romney (unsurprisingly) and Obama (somewhat surprisingly) are voicing full-throated support of hydrocarbons (oil, gas and coal) as they swing through critical battleground states in the eleventh hour.

Here's what both candidates' advisers know: More than 1.5 million people are employed in hydrocarbon-related businesses in just six important states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Colorado, Virginia, and Michigan. Those states stand to gain more than a half-million jobs because of the hydrocarbon boom.

But the hydrocarbon revolution is bigger than that. Nationally, more than 4 million jobs stand to emerge from hydrocarbon businesses, and soon. In 20 states, including Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania, the number of workers that could be employed amounts to one-fifth to three-fourths of everyone counted as unemployed or underemployed today. These are not just hard-hat jobs. For every hydrocarbon job in the field, six more ripple out into the economy, from manufacturing and education to health care and information services.

What's happening? America's oil output has reversed a four-decade decline and is growing faster than any other nation's. Natural gas production has soared so much that there's a glut, and a backlog in applications to export it. Coal exports are soaring to meet world demand, despite export bottlenecks. There's a potential for more than $2 trillion in aggregate net economic benefits from pumping up American hydrocarbon output. And all this happened without specific federal incentives, and despite regulatory headwinds.

Where did the boom come from? In a word, technology. Energy exploration and extraction arise almost entirely from innovation. While the punditocracy has been preoccupied with how technology enables alternative energy, it's missed how technology has quietly unleashed more oil, gas and coal. The world wants a lot more of all three: All credible forecasts see these resources supplying 60 to 80 percent of global growth. America has been abundantly blessed in this domain and could supply a lot more of these fuels.

The good news is you don't need Solyndra-like subsidies to make it happen. You just need sensible regulations. To generate still more jobs and more revenues, we could open up more of the vast untouched tracts of resources on federal lands, now accessible cleanly and safely with modern technology.

Obama is, of course, open to criticism, given the record of his administration's policies and the regulatory zeal that has caused or accelerated the closing of coal power plants and mines, or discouraged oil and gas production -- including the iconic Keystone oil pipeline.

But there is nowhere else to look for so many "low-hanging" jobs so soon. It's not only the hydrocarbon jobs that ripple out into the economy; promises made in swing states will also have ripple effects. Lots of other states have vast hydrocarbon resources, and while relegated to the backwater of electoral calculations, they'll benefit from promises made to expand production -- but only if they're kept. In this case, our economic future might well depend on it.

Mark P. Mills is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the recently released report, "Oil, Gas, And Coal Can Prime the Jobs Pump."

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