Coal in the presidential campaign: Sound and fury, signifying little
Mitt Romney and the U.S. coal industry are engaged in a very public love affair. In August, the Republican candidate stood on a stage in Ohio and condemned Barack Obama’s “war on coal,” backed by a group of beefy, safety-helmeted men who looked like they just stomped out of a coal mine. Those miners later appeared in one of Romney’s two September ads focused on coal, the “way of life” that, in his telling, Obama is ruthlessly attempting to crush.
“By the way,” Romney said in his first debate with Obama, lest America miss the point, “I like coal!”
That was Oct. 3. On Oct. 4, coal stocks soared. On Friday, Romney was in Abingdon, Virginia, holding a “Coal Country” rally, proclaiming, “I don’t believe in putting our coal under the ground forever.” (Was that one of Obama’s shovel-ready projects?)
If it feels like he’s trying too hard, it’s probably because Romney is not a natural fit for the industry’s affections. When he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney signed a climate change plan, supported clean-energy startups, and famously went after a coal plant that was shirking pollution controls, saying, “I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people. And that plant kills people.” (In one of its most cynical maneuvers, the Obama campaign has run ads attacking Romney for making this eminently defensible point.)
Now, however, Romney needs coal’s love, and badly.
That is the beginning of my new piece over on Foreign Policy. It’s about how coal has taken center stage in the election and why no politician’s love is going to be enough to save the U.S. coal power industry. Go read it!
I wrote it before Tuesday night’s debate but it turned out to be prescient, as there was an extended exchange over coal in the debate.
But what we don’t need is to have the president keeping us from taking advantage of oil, coal and gas. This has not been Mr. Oil, or Mr. Gas, or Mr. Coal. Talk to the people that are working in those industries. I was in coal country. People grabbed my arms and said, “Please save my job.” The head of the EPA said, “You can’t build a coal plant. You’ll virtually — it’s virtually impossible given our regulations.” When the president ran for office, he said if you build a coal plant, you can go ahead, but you’ll go bankrupt. That’s not the right course for America.
A little bit later, this was part of Obama’s response:
And when I hear Governor Romney say he’s a big coal guy, I mean, keep in mind, when — Governor, when you were governor of Massachusetts, you stood in front of a coal plant and pointed at it and said, “This plant kills,” and took great pride in shutting it down. And now suddenly you’re a big champion of coal.
So what I’ve tried to do is be consistent.
With respect to something like coal, we made the largest investment in clean coal technology, to make sure that even as we’re producing more coal, we’re producing it cleaner and smarter. Same thing with oil, same thing with natural gas.
Now, I grant you, on Twitter, this caused me to say the following:
Obama attacking Romney for criticizing coal! Angels are dying right now. Jesus has cancer. Puppies are extinct. I hate this.
But as I’ve, um, composed myself a little, I’m back to thinking basically what I said in my piece. Coal is on the decline, mostly from low natural gas prices and also partly as a result of long-overdue air and climate pollution rules. Neither Obama nor Romney is going to sink enough money into coal with carbon capture and sequestration (“clean coal”) to zap that zombie to life, especially without a price on carbon.
Despite Romney’s bluster, unless he’s granted strong Republican majorities in both houses of Congress — which doesn’t look very likely, if you believe Nate Silver — he can’t do much about EPA rules. They have proven all but impossible to overturn once in place. He might jam up new rules a little. George Bush Jr. certainly did. But it won’t be enough to save coal.
Both candidates have to say they support coal, because coal is big in swing states. But neither candidate is proposing anything that would halt coal’s slide in the market.
As I said in the piece, the real battle now is over coal exports. At least in climate terms, a victory over coal-fired power in the U.S. will mean nothing if we end up exporting more carbon than we shut down.
As for the rest of the debate, I don’t have much to say. The energy part was a bit of a horror show, with both candidates competing to love oil and coal the most, but we didn’t learn anything new or hear anything that hasn’t been said before. Overall, I’d give it to Obama on points and most insta-polls agree. The dynamics of the race remain roughly where they’ve been. It’s gonna be a squeaker.