Sen. Manchin’s bizarre flat-Earth society

September 7, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

For a minute there yesterday, I thought there had been a gigantic shift in the political landscape regarding coal issues in West Virginia. There it was on Twitter, Sen. Joe Manchin saying something like this:

Manchin says idea that burning coal is clean & good for the environment “antiquated thought. Like thinking the world is flat.”

It turns out it was one of those things that can happen all-too-easily on Twitter. Sen. Manchin’s quote got a bit garbled. This is what he really said:

If a person believes if we quit burning all the coal in America that the atmosphere will be cleaner for the world- if you believe that, then … you believe the world is flat because China is using more coal – 4 times more coal – than we use in the entire nation.

You can watch the video of his comments to WBOY-TV here:

WBOY.com: Clarksburg, Morgantown: News, Sports, Weather

It’s a little hard to know where to start here. First of all, given the huge hidden costs of coal pollution, coal’s gigantic air emissions, and coal’s significant contribution to global warming pollution, well, there’s just no question that if the United States stopped burning coal the atmosphere would be cleaner. Subtract all emissions from the U.S. coal industry and you get less pollution. Period. End of story.

Perhaps what Sen. Manchin means to say is that if the U.S. stopped using coal, that alone would not be enough to stop global warming, given the emissions of developing nations like China and India. But that’s not what he said. He said:

If a person believes if we quit burning all the coal in America that the atmosphere will be cleaner for the world- if you believe that, then … you believe the world is flat…

Generally, I think the media spends too much time looking for stuff like this to pull out of the body of a politician’s public statements and ridicule. But given the body of Sen. Manchin’s fairly recent statements about the coal industry, climate change, and air pollution, it’s just difficult to conclude that he is doing anything but misleading and trying to distract the discussion. A few examples:

— In February 2011, Sen. Manchin told a Senate committee that the coal industry “doesn’t get a penny of subsidies,” whereas the truth is coal is greatly subsidized in a variety of ways.

— A year later, in February 2012, Sen. Manchin attempted to grill Nobel Prize-winning Energy Secretary Steven Chu about what Manchin claimed was the administration’s failure to support advanced “clean coal” technologies, but then wouldn’t even let Secretary Chu finish his answers.

— As I’ve written before on this blog:

Sometimes, Sen. Manchin’s efforts to be pro-coal produce double-talk, especially when he is confronted by the fact that competition from natural gas — another industry he claims to support — is what is eroding coal’s share of today’s energy market. Remember this one from Sen. Manchin, in response to EPA’s rule to require new coal-fired power plants to control their greenhouse gas emissions:

This approach relies totally on cheap natural gas and we’ve seen that bubble burst before. It might sound good now, but what happens if those prices go up? Your average hardworking families and manufacturers will be left holding the bag of uncertainty – either in the prices they pay or in the reliability of our electrical system.

— As we’ve covered here before (see Do The math: Maddening Numbers in the ‘war on coal’), Sen. Manchin and his staff pick and choose which energy statistics they’re going to use in a manner that pumps up coal and makes it sound as if it’s more important than it is to our nation’s energy system.

In this instance, what Sen. Manchin is doing is setting up a straw man — some unnamed, invisible person who is saying that the U.S. should immediately stop all mining and burning of coal.  Even the Sierra Club — with its “Beyond Coal” campaign that local political leaders here love to hate —  isn’t making that argument. And President Obama certainly isn’t.

But by framing the issue that way, Sen. Manchin doesn’t have to talk about the real issues facing the coalfields of his state: Things like increased competition from natural gas and other coal regions, a declining base of economically extractable reserves, serious water quality and human health issues linked to large-scale surface mining, or the deadly toll of black lung disease.

During his appearance at the Lewis County Senior Center, Sen. Manchin added this to the remarks I quoted above:

If we really want to clean up the atmosphere, we need to find the technology that allows developing nations to burn [coal] cleaner.

As Sen. Manchin well knows, there was a piece of legislation that would have helped to do just that, a bill that the United Mine Workers said provided a “remarkable” amount of money for “clean coal” efforts and would have ensured the future of coal “will be intact.”   Sen. Manchin not only didn’t support that bill, but he ran for the Senate on a promise that he would shoot that poor, defenseless piece of legislation.

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