Coal Tattoo

All of the above: Obama doesn’t mention coal

President Barack Obama at TransCanada Stillwater Pipe Yard in Cushing, Okla., Thursday, March, 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Obama gave three major speeches this week about energy policy, all part of an energy tour that finished up today with this:

Standing in front of a row of pipes, President Barack Obama pledged on Thursday to accelerate approval for part of the Keystone XL pipeline, seeking to deflect criticism that his rejection of the full project helped create a climate for high gasoline prices.

For our purposes, the thing I wanted to point out is that none of the three sets of remarks (see here, here and here) mentions coal.  Here’s what the president did say:

We don’t want to be vulnerable to something that’s happening on the other side of the world somehow affecting our economy, or hurting a lot of folks who have to drive to get to work.  That’s not the future I want for America.  That’s not the future I want for our kids.  I want us to control our own energy destiny.  I want us to determine our own course.

So, yes, we’re going to keep on drilling.  Yes, we’re going to keep on emphasizing production.  Yes, we’re going to make sure that we can get oil to where it’s needed.  But what we’re also going to be doing as part of an all-of-the-above strategy is looking at how we can continually improve the utilization of renewable energy sources, new clean energy sources, and how do we become more efficient in our use of energy.

That means producing more biofuels, which can be great for our farmers and great for rural economies.  It means more fuel-efficient cars.  It means more solar power.  It means more wind power — which, by the way, nearly tripled here in Oklahoma over the past three years in part because of some of our policies.

We want every source of American-made energy.  I don’t want the energy jobs of tomorrow going to other countries.  I want them here in the United States of America.   And that’s what an all-of-the-above strategy is all about.  That’s how we break our dependence on foreign oil.

Now, keep in mind that President Obama mentioned coal (clean coal, to be more precise) in his State of the Union addresses in 2009, 2010, and 2011 — but not this year. Author and Rolling Stone author Jeff Goodell took a shot the other day at explaining this trend toward president silence on the issue of coal:

One explanation, of course, is that coal is simply too controversial, and the president simply wants to pretend it does not exist. If you talk about coal, then you have to talk about air pollution, mountaintop-removal mining, and carbon emissions – all issues that Obama has refused to take strong action on, despite the advice of his own scientists.

But another explanation may be that coal is dying in America, and everyone knows it. In the largest sense, it’s being killed off by technological progress and the rising awareness of the economic and environmental benefits of renewable energy. Even the biggest coal boosters have long admitted that coal is a dying industry – the fight has always been over how fast and how hard the industry will fall.

… But it’s not just economics. Cheap natural gas also emasculates Big Coal politically. The regions that hold the biggest reserves of shale gas, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania and Texas, also happen to be Big Coal states. And while coal is on the decline, gas is booming (for the moment, anyway – we’ll see how long it lasts). So local and state politicians in search of economic salvation and campaign contributions can suck up to the gas industry now – and look progressive while they’re doing it. This is even more true for Obama. The idea of “clean coal” has been so widely debunked and discredited that he can’t possibly talk it up during this campaign without destroying his clean-energy cred. In fact, the word “coal” is toxic to many of the voters Obama is trying to court, while natural gas, despite the many troubles with fracking, is seen as cleaner, more plentiful, more efficient. In this sense, candidates will likely talk about natural gas in 2012 the way, four years ago, they harped on “clean coal” – only too happy to be able to tout fossil fuel without looking like a troglodyte.

So the word “coal” may be absent from Obama’s energy speeches for a very good reason: because he and his advisors have decided they don’t need Big Coal anymore to win. If it’s true, this would mark an epic shift in energy politics in America, and one that could turn out to be far more important in the long run than whether or not America can tolerate $5-a-gallon gasoline.

Politically, that could all be correct. But it’s also clear that, even if President Obama understands the decline of coal — and even if he understands the very real impacts of coal on the global climate, public health, and worker safety, it’s not clear that he’s doing everything about those issues that he could.

For example, note that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reissued its permit for streamlined approval of strip mines. Or go back and recall that the president personally overruled a measure government scientists said was needed to reduce coal’s air pollution impacts.  President Obama signed into law a measure that prevents the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration from enforcing tougher coal dust limits meant to end deadly black lung disease.  We haven’t heard a word from the president himself about MSHA’s failures at the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. Coal-miner safety appears off the agenda.

Just because the president isn’t talking about coal doesn’t mean he’s doing all he could to reduce the impacts of mining across our nation’s coalfields.