Americans should no longer be surprised by President Barack Obama’s willingness to compromise clean air and public health for the sake of political calculus. This is, after all, the same head of state who last year struck down the EPA’s proposed smog regulations –– regulations that would have saved 12,000 lives annually –– because he feared being perceived as anti-business, and whose drill-everywhere energy strategy has quadrupled the number of oil rigs in U.S. fields. The man has an election to win, and he’s not afraid to violate a promise or two to win it.
Still, until this week, there had been at least one influential lobby whose pressure Obama mostly resisted: coal.
In the last year the EPA, with the president’s blessing, implemented landmark regulations controlling first the mercury and then the greenhouse gas emissions of new coal-fired power plants, measures which have made constructing future plants prohibitively expensive. The portion of American electricity generated by coal is plummeting, from 44% to 36% in the past year alone, and, while a sizable portion of that decline can be attributed to the natural gas boom, the air regulations have certainly contributed, as have increasingly cost-competitive renewables. Not only has construction of new plants effectively ceased, but existing ones are being shuttered left and right: according to the Energy Information Administration, 175 coal-fired generators will be shut down in 2012. A coal-free future looks more imminent each day, and even if the president doesn’t deserve all the credit, his tough regulatory actions are certainly helping to wean our country off the black rock.
And yet his demonstrably anti-coal stance didn’t prevent Obama from releasing a craven pro-coal radio ad in Ohio earlier this week. In the ad, Obama celebrates Ohio’s coal production, apparently up 7% since he took office, and claims that he “pledged to support clean coal and invest in new technologies.” He goes on to accuse Mitt Romney of opposing coal, excerpting a clip from a 2003 press conference in front of a Massachusetts coal plant at which Romney stated, “I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people. And that plant, that plant kills people.”
So much about this ad is terribly off-base. First, coal’s downfall has been one of Obama’s clearest policy successes –– he should be embracing his anti-coal legacy, rather than concealing it. Furthermore, his measures to reduce coal pollution have been so significant, and so vociferously denounced by the industry, that it’s hard to imagine any coal-conscious voters being seduced by this ad. Drop the facade, Barack: you hate coal, and your friends and enemies both know it.
Second, the notion that Obama is truly pursuing clean coal is, at best, up for debate. According to one Politico article, the technology to scrub toxic particles and carbon from coal plants’ outputs may already exist –– granted, largely thanks to Department of Energy funding –– but installing it is still far too costly for most plants, and will be for the foreseeable future. Perhaps Obama has facilitated the development of clean coal tech, but he hasn’t done anything to help plants apply it. And, of course, there’s also a strong argument that the phrase “clean coal” is an irreconcilable oxymoron –– even if you can burn the stuff safely, getting it out of the ground is still a calamitous process.
And, finally, there’s the fact that (gritting teeth) Romney ... was ... right. Coal plants do kill people: lots and lots of people. One study, conducted by the Clean Air Task Force, found that over 13,000 deaths were attributable to particle pollution from power plants in 2010 (that’s about as many as died from AIDS, for comparison’s sake). Of course, Romney, who suffers from the world’s worst case of Credibility Deficit Disorder, now casts himself as the coal industry’s staunchest ally; but, as with many issues, Candidate Mitt is very much at odds with Erstwhile Governor Mitt.
Obama’s pro-coal ad is yet another example of the Incumbent in Chief attempting to sway moderates and, in so doing, compromising his values and exasperating his liberal base. The president’s reelection prospects are undeniably hampered by poor job growth, and so it’s little wonder that he now seeks to cast himself as a stimulator of industries, coal among them.
But in promoting our dirtiest source of energy, Obama is not only betraying himself and his constituents, he’s also prioritizing employment and economic growth over more fundamental measures of well-being. (Given how eagerly we anticipate each month’s jobs report, of course, you can hardly blame him.) Take a good look at the Clean Air Task Force’s interactive map, linked below, and you’ll see that, with the exception of West Virginia, no state suffers more coal-related fatalities than Ohio. What a sad state of affairs: our electorate, and as a result our president, places more emphasis on growing the economy than on avoiding deaths.