The U.S. coal industry was up in arms today over a comment Sen.
Barack Obama (D-Ill.) made about the future of coal, and it became one of the last-minute issues in an effort to swing votes in coal-producing regions of the Midwest.
The Western Business Roundtable, the National Mining Association and various other groups criticized Obama for a comment he made in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. They quoted the interview at some length, in which Obama discusses his support for a cap-and-trade bill that would force all emitters of greenhouse gases to buy allowances in a public auction. This is a plan that has very widespread support among Democrats, some Republicans (including Sen. John McCain, who co-sponsored two cap-and-trade bills) and many utilities (especially those with more nuclear than greenhouse gas-emitting coal plants).
Here's the key line from Obama: "So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can; it's just that it will bankrupt them because they're going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that's being emitted."
The language about bankrupting plants was harsh, but the whole idea of a cap-and-trade bill or a tax or any number of other plans is to make emitting greenhouse gases more expensive -- so expensive that people stop emitting them. This, incidentally, is generally thought to be a more market-friendly solution than simply ordering a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions through regulatory fiat. But the coal industry, not without reason, is worried about the impact on its business. Hence its tone of outrage today.
"We are calling upon Democrats, Republicans and Independents from coast to coast to publicly express their support for advanced clean coal power generation and to distance themselves from those who say that we should bankrupt the coal industry," said Britt Weygandt, Executive Director of the Western Business Roundtable, in a press release. "A lot of Americans are going to be listening in the next 24 hours to see which elected leaders stand up for clean coal and which don't."
"I am shocked that any candidate for public office, Democrat or Republican, would suggest bankrupting any industry, much less one that literally keeps America's lights on each day," said Wyoming State Senator Bill Vasey (D), in a press release by an industry group called Americans for American Energy.
The National Mining Association said in its own press release:
"Bankrupting the coal industry would be tantamount to bankrupting the American economy. Coal generates half of our nation's electricity, employs hundreds of thousands of Americans and provides millions of dollars in revenue to coal states... Destroying the coal industry would break America's energy backbone. It would raise the cost of energy for households and businesses throughout the country and create massive job losses. We trust the candidates understand this and do not believe that destroying the coal industry is part of the change we need."
The Obama campaign hit back today, calling the issue another of the McCain-Palin campaign's "last minute, desperate distortions." The campaign said that Obama supports "clean coal," shorthand for saying he would invest in technology that would attempt to capture and bury carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants. Without that technology, the choice between burning coal and slowing climate change could become a stark one. The climate issue can't be solved without addressing emissions from coal plants. But the technology is probably at least a decade or so away from being commercially viable, so supporting "clean coal" sidesteps the question of what he'd do about new coal plants now. That is, presumably, why the senator was describing the impact a cap-and-trade bill might have at an earlier point. This is a dilemma, incidentally, that a McCain presidency would have, too, if McCain is sensitive to the need to slow climate change.
So what did Obama actually say? The Western Business Roundtable sent a text around. But the Obama campaign version includes a few sentences at the beginning that the business group omitted. Here it is:
"I voted against the Clear Skies Bill. In fact, I was the deciding vote. Despite the fact that I'm a coal state. And that half my state thought that I had thoroughly betrayed them. Because I think clean air is critical and global warming is critical. But this notion of no coal, I think, is an illusion. Because the fact of the matter is is that right now we are getting a lot of our energy from coal. And China is building a coal-powered plant once a week. So what we have to do then is figure out how can we use coal without emitting greenhouse gases and carbon. And how can we sequester that carbon and capture it. If we can't, then we're gonna still be working on alternatives.
"But...[NOTE: here's where the Western Business Roundtable picked up the text.] let me sort of describe my overall policy. What I've said is that we would put a cap and trade policy in place that is as aggressive if not more aggressive than anyone out there. I was the first call for 100% auction on the cap and trade system. Which means that every unit of carbon or greenhouse gases that was emitted would be charged to the polluter. That will create a market in which whatever technologies are out there that are being presented, whatever power plants are being built, they would have to meet the rigors of that market. And the ratcheted down caps that are imposed every year. So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can. It's just that it will bankrupt them because they're going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that's being emitted. That will also generate billions of dollars that we can invest in solar, wind, biodiesel, and other alternative energy approaches. The only thing that I've said with respect to coal--I haven't been some coal booster. What I have said is that for us to take coal off the table as a ideological matter, as opposed to saying if technology allows us to use coal in a clean way, we should pursue it. That I think is the right approach. The same with respect to nuclear. Right now, we don't know how to store nuclear waste wisely and we don't know how to deal with some of the safety issues that remain. And so it's wildly expensive to pursue nuclear energy. But I tell you what, if we could figure out how to store it safely, then I think most of us would say that might be a pretty good deal. The point is, if we set rigorous standards for the allowable emissions, then we can allow the market to determine and technology and entrepreneurs to pursue, what the best approach is to take, as opposed to us saying at the outset, here are the winners that we're picking and maybe we pick wrong and maybe we pick right."