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Coal and the Art of Political Promises

HL Mencken once said of Harry Truman, while he ran for president, that if there had been a sizable number of cannibals in the country, he would have promised them a steady supply of missionaries, fattened at public expense. With that in mind, Romney gave a talk earlier this week to coal miners in Ohio, telling them that he’ll be better for them than Obama, and Obama responded by saying no, he’ll be better for them than Romney.

For months, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity has been buying ads in Ohio, talking up coal jobs and blasting the Obama administration’s “heavy-handed regulations” on coal.

In turn, the Obama campaign launched a radio ad a week ago, praising the president’s record on coal. It claims that coal jobs are up 10 percent, and that a $5 billion investment in clean coal technology is one of the largest ever.

The ad also blasts Romney for misrepresenting President Obama when it comes to coal, and it notes that Romney said at a 2003 press conference in front of a coal plant that he “will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people. And that plant kills people.” …

Romney’s campaign stop Tuesday took place at another coal plant owned by Murray Energy. Speaking with dozens of hard-hatted mine workers behind him, Romney referenced the Obama radio ad, saying it’s “not true.”

Romney told the crowd that Obama’s policies are helping the development of alternative energy at the expense of the coal industry. And Romney quoted Vice President Joe Biden saying that “coal is more dangerous than terrorists.”

Here’s the problem with all of this talk: What is best for those particular workers keeping their jobs is not necessarily what is best for the country. Coal is extremely abundant and relatively cheap and it has certainly fueled our economy, literally and figuratively. But it’s also very, very bad for the environment and for our health in almost every conceivable way. And at some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, we’re going to have to find new, cleaner ways to produce energy.

And yes, that’s going to put coal miners out of a job. And that’s bad for them, obviously. But public policy has to be based on what is best for all of us, not for each particular group and their immediate needs. Moving to an economy based on renewable and cleaner sources of energy will hurt coal miners, but it will also create whole new industries that provide jobs to millions of other people. And it will make us all healthier and help the environment immensely. That makes it good public policy. And making promises to every subgroup that relies on bad public policy for their continued well-being, at the expense of everyone else, is a very bad thing for the country as a whole.

Comments

  1. slc1 says

    Interestingly enough, about a year before he died, the late West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd sent out a newsletter to his constituents stating bluntly that coal, as a source of electric power generation was going to have to be phased out.

  2. Francisco Bacopa says

    Just another reason to do away with the electoral college.

    Someone needs to push for this amendment in spite of the fact that the small states would never allow it to be ratified.

  3. celticlight says

    We do need to move beyond coal eventually. Let’s just make sure we have something to replace it first. Many of the same people who are against coal are also against nuclear, oil, natural gas, etc. Wind , Solar, Ethanol are the mantra. We never hear about the negatives to those sources. Why is that ? Perhaps due to a government – industrial complex extends beyond the military ?

  4. Chiroptera says

    Huh. I would’ve thought the promise would include help in retraining and relocating so that the workers can be assured of good jobs in an economy that isn’t destroyed by global climate change.

    Francisco Bacopa, #3: Someone needs to push for this amendment in spite of the fact that the small states would never allow it to be ratified.

    I actually read an analysis based on voting theory: the all-or-nothing method of distributing a state’s electoral votes ends up giving the advantage to voters in the large states.

    I haven’t seen the results repeated, so maybe the analysis is flawed. Maybe I need to go on Google expedition today.

  5. says

    Coal is disgusting. I doubt we’ll get away from it before the mountains and streams are all gone or buried beneath rubble.

    As a West Virginian I can’t stand watching my home be destroyed and the lives of young men be ruined by our of state interests that treat this beautiful place like a colony.

  6. Ben P says

    We do need to move beyond coal eventually. Let’s just make sure we have something to replace it first. Many of the same people who are against coal are also against nuclear, oil, natural gas, etc. Wind , Solar, Ethanol are the mantra. We never hear about the negatives to those sources. Why is that ? Perhaps due to a government – industrial complex extends beyond the military ?

    I consider willingness to support nuclear power (even grudgingly) to be an important indicator of whether an environmentalist is rational.

    Whether for climate changes reasons or simple economic reasons there are decent arguments why we ought to be prepared to shift away from Fossil Fuels as a primary power source.

    But a whole lot of environmentalists are just as opposed to nuclear power in any form.

    its easy to say we ought to go to fully renewable sources but there just isn’t any way to accomplish that in the short term (and by short term I mean years). Nuclear is one of the few options that work as a bridge source. Now, there are a lot of risks to nuclear power but most of those can be very carefully managed.

  7. PatrickG says

    @ Chiroptera: I remember reading the same thing, but I can’t remember where… argh. Go on that expedition, and Pastaspeed!

    But it’s worth remembering that if California did its electoral votes proportionally, Republican voters there would effectively become a large state. Reverse is true in Texas. Lots of disenfranchisement to go around.

    In any case, no need to constitutionally amend it. If more states sign onto the NPV idea (http://www.nationalpopularvote.com/),
    the EC would basically just be a cutesy little ritual with no meaning, though I think the proposal is a bit politically impracticable.

  8. PatrickG says

    And sorry for the OT above, I meant to say this first:

    It’s been really weird living in Kentucky and watching people do the coal dance. Beshear in particular… yeesh.

  9. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    Wind , Solar, Ethanol are the mantra. We never hear about the negatives to those sources. Why is that ? Perhaps due to a government – industrial complex extends beyond the military ?

    We do, but I’m curious as to what you think the negatives are.

    Wait, I recognize your handle.

    We do, but I’m curious as to what Fox News says the negatives are.

  10. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    Now, there are a lot of risks to nuclear power but most of those can be very carefully managed.

    The problem is, they won’t be.

  11. naturalcynic says

    @8:

    the EC would basically just be a cutesy little ritual with no meaning, though I think the proposal is a bit politically impracticable.

    How soon we forget the debacle of 2000.
    @4:

    Wind , Solar, Ethanol are the mantra. We never hear about the negatives to those sources. Why is that ? Perhaps due to a government – industrial complex extends beyond the military ?

    Perhaps some have not been listening to the recent denigrations of ethanol. Many have complained that the current drought will decrease corn crop to endanger millions with starvation of the required portion of the crop is diverted to ethanol. This critique is years old. And wind is always subject to NIMBY.

  12. says

    And yes, that’s going to put coal miners out of a job. And that’s bad for them, obviously.

    What I find remarkable is just how few coal jobs there are, relatively speaking, and how coal mining seems to have done little or nothing to bring coal-rich regions out of poverty.

    In my state (CO), the coal industry runs ads touting the 6000 coal mining jobs (or maybe that’s the whole industry) that it creates. Hey great, 6000 jobs! The medical campus I work at employs nearly 30,000 by itself. Assuming half the population is in the workforce, coal provides about 0.3% of the state’s jobs.

    And then you look at the traditional coal mining regions, Appalachia, areas around the Mississippi, and parts of the mountain west, and what do you see? Mostly grinding poverty. I’m sure WV is a great state, but it’s characterized by being much poorer than its neighboring, non-coal states. Even in PA, which is otherwise prosperous, the coal regions are the places that are poor.

    I seriously think that the best thing we could do for coal miners is to move them someplace that doesn’t have coal.

  13. says

    I’m fine with nuclear power so long as it’s heavily regulated and we’ve got a place to put the waste. Unfortunately, our culture is in a phase where regulation is a dirty word.

  14. celticlight says

    Azkyroth says “Wait, I recognize your handle.”

    Yes you should, the celticlight can not be extinquished despite your best efforts.

  15. Michael Heath says

    While I’m not in the camp of those who oppose nuclear and natural gas, I empathize with their position where think I suffer from the same affliction they do, which is not being sufficiently informed to help me develop well-informed positions within a sufficient framework – which is the reality of warming world. We lack:
    1) Economic reports which address viable climate impact scenarios
    2) Economic reports which reveal how different energy footprint scenarios impact us economically given a warming planet.
    3) Reports which are then continuously reported to the public in a manner that’s understandable to the public at large.

    I’ve only seen one comprehensive economic analysis on the impact of climate change where it obviously understates the impact because it fails to address all the threats climate scientists are now predicting as the consensus view. And that report is several years old where climate scientists’ threat predictions have been pulled-in and the damage predicted increased.

    Climate change is easily the most important issue of our time and yet it receives scant notice. Even the mainstream media which concedes how big the threat provides hardly any coverage at all on this issue – particularly the overall threat. For example, the NYTs likes to do science-friendly reports on ice sheet melting, but fails to address how our world, especially our wellbeing, will be marginally different in 2100 if you don’t sufficiently mitigate this threat.

    I will make two confident predictions.
    1)If President Obama’s Administration goes down as a monumental failure a century from now, it will be because of his failure to sufficiently lead on getting us to confront climate change. Where I’m fully cognizant of the fact Republicans are only one of two major impediments to taking on this challenge. The other being China but I’m confident they’d get on-board if the U.S. started to lead rather than effectively deny this threat.

    2) President George W. Bush remains in the hunt as the worst president in U.S. history, predominately due to his Administration enabling and leading the Republican party in its denial of global warming and turning the party into a monolithic force against conceding climate change and worse yet, doing anything about it. Even if the threat was 50/50 rather than 95/5, any undergrad business major can tell you how insane their refusal to mitigate the threat is, the math is convincing with no viable counter-argument to avoid mitigation efforts. Unless you don’t give a fuck about future generations.

  16. eric says

    Chiroptera @5 – I completely agree with retraining. What makes public education (both HS and state support for University-level) such a powerful, positive social good is that it can help mitigate problems like this. Ed’s:

    that’s going to put coal miners out of a job. And that’s bad for them, obviously

    can become instead: “that’s going to make coal miners switch from their low income, dangerous, manual labor jobs, to higher income, more healthy jobs, which is good for them, obviously.”

    Once we (as a country) are willing to pay for people to get a good quality, general education, fluctuations in different industries becomes far less damaging to communities.

    There are a lot of people out there perfectly capable of making lemonade out of lemons, if we, as a society, are willing to pay for them to learn how to do it.

  17. celticlight says

    Ethanol is an easy one. The intensive effort to increase corn production is causing increased pollution of various water sources and the ethanol fuel mandate combined with the drought is currently driving up global food prices which is quite injurious to many poor around the world. (This IS actually being covered by some media). Presidential politics demand we avoid this subject while Iowa is up for grabs.

    What you hear less about is solar energy. Solar can be very land intensive. Huge tracts of desert are being opened to solar farms which contain hundreds of thousands of solar panels. While we will block a dam to save a snail darter, are we considering the effects of solar power farms on desert tortoises or bighorn sheep ? Not a peep.

    What about the effects of wind turbines on migrating birds ?
    Silence – except for some of the smaller groups outside of the mainstream.

    I am not against solar or wind power, but it would be nice if the environmental “movement” did not give an automatic “free pass” to these forms of energy. It is represents one of the problems of the environmental movement’s change to a political power over the past 25 years. I have witnessed it first hand from inside the movement. They did not always play favorites, and at least discussed the pros and cons with less bias.

  18. abb3w says

    One additional detail is that much of the regulation on the Coal industry is for worker safety.

    Which is better off, a coal worker who loses his job due to the additional costs of regulatory compliance, or a coal worker who loses his life from safety failures?

    Of course, the other heavy regulation on coal is the Clean Air requirements passed by that corrupt bleeding heart liberal, Richard Nixon….

  19. plutosdad says

    What is best for those particular workers keeping their jobs is not necessarily what is best for the country.

    Given the abuses of miners by the industry, and the refusal of the Obama administration to hold mining companies responsible, what’s best for the workers is not necessarily keeping those jobs either.

  20. says

    What you hear less about is solar energy. Solar can be very land intensive. Huge tracts of desert are being opened to solar farms which contain hundreds of thousands of solar panels.

    If only there were large amounts of unused space on which we could place solar panels, preferably right where we lived… like maybe right over our heads…

    While we will block a dam to save a snail darter, are we considering the effects of solar power farms on desert tortoises or bighorn sheep ? Not a peep.

    Last I checked, solar energy farms have to pass the same environmental impact reviews as any other project. If they’re passing those reviews without much fanfare, it’s probably because there’s an awful lot of uninhabited desert against which a few hundred acres of solar panels are insignificant.

    What about the effects of wind turbines on migrating birds? Silence – except for some of the smaller groups outside of the mainstream.

    Environmentalists talk about this stuff all the time. I did a Google and here’s the second hit:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/wind-farms-under-fire-for-bird-kills/2011/08/25/gIQAP0bVlJ_story.html

    Windmills kill nearly half a million birds a year, according to a Fish and Wildlife estimate. The American Bird Conservancy projected that the number could more than double in 20 years if the administration realizes its goal for wind power.

    [...]

    If the ongoing investigation by the Fish and Wildlife Service’s law enforcement division results in a prosecution at Pine Tree, it will be a first. The conservancy wants stronger regulations and penalties for the wind industry, but the government has so far responded only with voluntary guidelines.

    You’ve got an environmental group complaining about bird kills that wants stronger regulations, and an industry group disputing them. Sounds normal.

    It really helps sometime if you take the effort to listen to what environmentalists say rather than filling in the blanks from your own prejudice.

  21. celticlight says

    Michael says “Climate change is easily the most important issue of our time and yet it receives scant notice”.

    WHAT ??? Where do you think the “green” drumbeat originates from ? You must skip all the commercials on TV or in print. Now I do agree that the media coverage is lacking any real depth, but to say it receives scant notice is absurd.

  22. says

    But a whole lot of environmentalists are just as opposed to nuclear power in any form.

    That’s because the nuclear industry has flushed its credibility down the toilet from day one, and no matter how safe nuclear power CAN be, the interest-groups who run it never seem willing to actually do the right thing, or treat the public with a grain of respect.

    I really want to be pro-nuclear, but if the Japanese — who once had that image of being so honorable, dutiful, competent, and community-minded — can’t do it right, who the fuck can?

    I might support a nuclear industry that’s completely owned and run by the government on a non-profit basis. We need alternative energy, and the capitalist model for nuclear power has failed, so why not?

  23. celticlight says

    Area Man – very good reference on bird kills by wind turbines.

    The “American Bird Conservancy” is one of the smaller environmental groups I referenced that is concerned about this issue. However how many “people on the street” have any clue about this being a possible adverse impact of wind energy ?

  24. slc1 says

    Re Raging Bee @ #23

    The nuclear power plant that was destroyed in Japan actually came through the earthquake is good shape. What did it in was the tsunami that developed 30 foot tidal surges when the flood protection of the plants was only 15 feet. The flooding shut down the diesel engines that run the cooling systems when the nuclear reactors are shut down. This was discussed a year or two ago in a post on the Cosmic Variance blog on Discover blogs.

  25. says

    BenP @7:

    I consider willingness to support nuclear power (even grudgingly) to be an important indicator of whether an environmentalist is rational.

    I used to be the same way up until about a year ago. Not because of Fukushima, but because it’s becoming clear that the future belongs to solar, and nuclear almost certainly will not be able to compete on a cost basis. The cost of solar PV is falling at such a ridiculous rate that within the next 10-15 years, if not sooner, it will be cheaper than coal. All we need to do is give it a nice push and/or make the coal industry pay for its own pollution.

  26. JustaTech says

    @CelticLight 18: And if so much of the ethanol industry wasn’t beholden to the corn interests, we could have ethanol made from something other than food. Like switchgrass, or left-over sugar cane (post-processing). But, as you said, all bow to Iowa and their silly corn.

    As for coal, well, what’s that song? “I owe my soul to the company store.”

  27. Michael Heath says

    celticlight writes:

    Where do you think the “green” drumbeat originates from ? You must skip all the commercials on TV or in print.

    When it comes to our being informed regarding the exact threat and predicted results, those ads in no way address the type of comprehensive and repeated reporting I referenced.

    celticlight writes:

    I do agree that the media coverage is lacking any real depth, but to say it receives scant notice is absurd.

    I’m comfortable with my position. Comfortable enough I’d bet a significant amount of money more than 90% of the public can not name the major predicted threats due to climate change and the odds those threats will come to fruition. Along with not understanding the implication to both overall security and financial wellbeing.

  28. eoraptor013 says

    RagingBee @23

    Socialist!

    OTOH, the US Navy has put something like 500 reactors into production, and never lost a ship due to a nuclear accident. Having a government run nuclear energy program, and providing a post-service employment track for a lot of veterans, is way too good an idea to ever be implemented in the US.

  29. eoraptor013 says

    slc1 @25

    And… the freaking diesel engines were on the ground! Any half-way reasonable cost-benefit analysis would have elevated the engines above the levees, precisely because of the uncertainties. Indeed, the uncertainties, and the potential damages due to failure are two of the main arguments for nuclear power being entirely in the government domain. As a sop to the care-nothing capitalists, the government could sell the energy, at a small profit margin (gotta reduce that debt!), to the traditional power companies.

    I suspect the odds of one of Canada’s CANDU reactors going critical are better than the US Congress ever doing something rational with nuclear energy.

  30. Nathair says

    its easy to say we ought to go to fully renewable sources but there just isn’t any way to accomplish that in the short term (and by short term I mean years).

    Germany’s (excellent) example indicates otherwise.

    While we will block a dam to save a snail darter, are we considering the effects of solar power farms on desert tortoises or bighorn sheep ? Not a peep.

    The Endangered Species Act is not dam specific, it can protect species from a solar farm just as well as from dam construction. Actually, seeing as the Tellico Dam was given a special exemption from the ESA and was built despite the Snail Darter, I would suggest that it protects rather better against solar farms. What I find really troubling about your comment is that you are trying to twist the lack of data into evidence of some kind of covered-up or ignored problem rather than admitting that it much more probably indicates the lack of any such issues.

  31. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    Ethanol is an easy one. The intensive effort to increase corn production is causing increased pollution of various water sources and the ethanol fuel mandate combined with the drought is currently driving up global food prices which is quite injurious to many poor around the world. (This IS actually being covered by some media). Presidential politics demand we avoid this subject while Iowa is up for grabs.

    I certainly concede that corn-based ethanol fuel is idiotic. You can tell that it’s a bad idea because it’s the only form of biofuel technology anti-environmentalists will acknowledge exists.

    What you hear less about is solar energy. Solar can be very land intensive. Huge tracts of desert are being opened to solar farms which contain hundreds of thousands of solar panels. While we will block a dam to save a snail darter, are we considering the effects of solar power farms on desert tortoises or bighorn sheep ? Not a peep.

    There has been protest on this issue, but the land impact from well-placed, well-designed solar is potentially far less than the impact from almost any other source, and is definitely not comparable to that of dams, because land habitats do not flow downstream, as you would realize if you were arguing in good faith.

    What about the effects of wind turbines on migrating birds ?

    Worth addressing, but not insurmountable and certainly less than that of climate change ffs.

  32. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    And… the freaking diesel engines were on the ground! Any half-way reasonable cost-benefit analysis would have elevated the engines above the levees, precisely because of the uncertainties. Indeed, the uncertainties, and the potential damages due to failure are two of the main arguments for nuclear power being entirely in the government domain.

    Two words:

    Challenger.

    Columbia.

    Nuclear power would definitely be worth investing in if we made it a capital offense for managers to attempt to overrule engineers on matters of safety. If we made it a felony, that might be marginal.

  33. slc1 says

    Re eoraptor013 @ #30

    A good point. Apparently it never occurred to the engineers who designed the levees or the placement of the diesel backup system that tidal surges greater then 15 feet might occur. In the event, the tidal surges were 30 feet. Perhaps they were trying to save money be being penny wise and pound foolish.

    By the way, some 75% of the electricity generated by France comes from nuclear power plants. AFAIK, they haven’t experienced any of the problems conjured up by the opponents of nuclear power. Maybe the French nuclear power plants were designed right.

  34. DrVanNostrand says

    Wind turbines killing birds is talked about a lot as one of its drawbacks. The problem has been studied a lot and it should be noted that the Audobon Society supports wind power since it thinks climate change is the greater threat to birds. This policy statement offers a pretty good take on the issue. I don’t think these issues are ignored, they’re just rightly considered as less serious than climate change and the human health effects from burning fossil fuels.

  35. eoraptor013 says

    Azkyroth @23

    Point taken. Although, that’s 14 casualties vs. much larger numbers, over time, from Chernobyl and Fukishima. And none of that includes the effects of climate change.

    And again, the US Navy has brought something like 500 reactors online, and producing, since 1948. Only a government entity can do the research, like the Navy did, and an existing government agency has an excellent track-record, and a pool of trained people, currently working, many of whom would probably appreciate a civilian use for their skills.

  36. inquisitiveraven says

    I’m comfortable with my position. Comfortable enough I’d bet a significant amount of money more than 90% of the public can not name the major predicted threats due to climate change and the odds those threats will come to fruition.

    Granted this is anecdotal, but I had a talk yesterday with a woman who apparently thought global warming was caused by the destruction of the ozone layer. I had to explain that no, the two phenomena are not connected, well, not that way, and did point out that the main cause is CO2 from burning fossil fuels. We were waiting at a bus stop; I didn’t have time to go into a lot of detail.

  37. inquisitiveraven says

    Yeah, the point being there are ignorant people out there, but at she seemed to believe it was happening.

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