Coal Tattoo

Coal kills: What is President Obama talking about?

President Barack Obama speaks during a grassroots event at Cornell College on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012., in Mount Vernon, Iowa. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

We’ve talked several times on this blog (see here, here and here, for example) about the ridiculous TV ads from the Obama administration that criticize Republican presidential candidate Gov. Mitt Romney for stating the truth: That pollution from coal-fired power plants kills people.

Well now, after bringing it up in Tuesday night’s debate, President Obama has added a section on the issue to his stump speech, at least to a version of it he delivered yesterday in Athens, Ohio.   As Politico reports:

President Obama mocked Mitt Romney’s newfound affinity for coal here, chuckling his way through an attack on his GOP rival’s coal bona fides and questioning his authenticity on a key local topic.

“I was listening to Gov. Romney yesterday talk about how he’s a champion of coal,” Obama said. “When he was a governor, he stood in front of a coal fire plant and said, ‘This plant kills people.’”

“Now he’s running around talking like he’s Mr. Coal,” Obama said. “Come on. Come on. You know that’s not on the level. And has anybody ever looked at that guy and said, ‘He’s really into coal?’”

The context of Gov. Romney’s comments has been pretty well documented before, by the National Journal, Salon, and the Wall Street Journal. But the important thing here is that the crux of the statement — that pollution from coal-fired power plants kills people — is true. And you don’t have to take my word for it — take the word of, just for one example, the National Academy of Sciences, which is one recent report estimated the “hidden costs” of health damage from coal-powered electricity at $62 billion annually across the U.S.  Or read Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal, published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, which found, among other things:

Estimates of nonfatal health endpoints from coal-related pollutants vary, but are substantial—including 2,800 from lung cancer, 38,200 nonfatal heart attacks and tens of thousands of emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and lost work days. A review of the epidemiology of airborne particles documented that exposure to PM2.5 is linked with all-cause premature mortality, cardiovascular and cardiopulmonary mortality, as well as respiratory illnesses, hospitalizations, respiratory and lung function symptoms, and school absences. Those exposed to a higher concentration of PM2.5 were at higher risk. Particulates are a cause of lung and heart disease, and premature death, and increase hospitalization costs. Diabetes mellitus enhances the health impacts of particulates and has been implicated in sudden infant death syndrome. Pollution from two older coal-fired power plants in the U.S. Northeast was linked to approximately 70 deaths, tens of thousands of asthma attacks, and hundreds of thousands of episodes of upper respiratory illnesses annually.

Of course, power plant pollution is just one of the ways that coal contributes to premature deaths in this country. There’s also black lung disease, or the growing evidence that living near mountaintop removal coal-mining operations puts residents at increased risks.

So what exactly is President Obama getting at?

Platters of sugar cookies bearing the likenesses of President Barack Obama, left, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, are available for sale on the counter at the Oakmont Bakery on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012 in Oakmont, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

The simple answer, I suppose, is that he’s trying to get re-elected. And in a close contest for an electoral college victory, even relatively small numbers of votes in the coal counties of southeastern Ohio and southwestern Virginia could matter. Gov. Romney has been hitting President Obama’s coal policies hard in those states, and even made a trip to visit with coal miners in Colorado not so long ago.  Though Ohio and Colorado currently appear to be leaning toward the president, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog currently lists Gov. Romney as more likely to win Virginia — and with just a few weeks to go, all three are still probably in play and considered swing states.

So the Obama campaign hopes that it can somehow paint Gov. Romney at worst as really being anti-coal or at best as having flip-flopped on the issue. Apparently this strategy works a little bit with some people. I seem to recall that West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin told the Daily Mail’s editors that the “coal kills” remarks showed him Gov. Romney wasn’t on West Virginia’s side.

But where this whole thing breaks down is when you remember that Gov. Romney used part of his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention to make the global threat presented by climate change into some sort of silly joke. President Obama quickly responded by saying the climate crisis is no laughing matter. But really, isn’t President Obama making a joke out of power plant pollution? How is what he’s doing here any different from the pandering that Gov. Romney engaged in on climate change?

In a story published in The Hill, the Obama campaign is offering what seems like a pretty weak defense of the president’s not talking much about climate change during this campaign — and skipping the chance to talk about it during the extended energy discussion included in this week’s debate:

“Whether it’s on the stump or at the White House, President Obama has long focused on ways to develop clean energy as a core economic pillar. By advocating for the growth of renewable energy, as he did in Tuesday’s debate, President Obama has continually called for action that will address the sources of climate change,” Adam Fetcher, a spokesman for the campaign, told The Hill in an email Wednesday.

Fetcher said the differences between Obama and Romney on energy should indicate which candidate is more devoted to mitigating the effects of climate change.

“While Mitt Romney questioned the science behind climate change and mocked it in his convention speech, President Obama will continue to make the case for cleaner American sources of energy that will create jobs and fight climate change,” Fetcher said.

But how can the president honestly make a case for cleaner American sources of energy if he mocks Gov. Romney for having accurately described the impacts of coal-fired power plant pollution? It seems like a more honest strategy for President Obama would be to take a page out of the book of his own Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, who has acknowledged coal’s importance, while also explaining that it is a polluting fuel whose impacts need to be addressed:

Pollution from coal-fired power plants comes from the extraction of the coal in some cases, the burning of the coal, which gives soot and smog-forming pollution, and mercury and lead and arsenic and cadmium and acid gases and then you’ve got to get rid of the ash! …One form of energy has to at least be subject to the same laws as the other forms are. That’s what we’ve been working on as far as coal. I always tell people, it’s not about coal, it’s about the pollution that for too long has been associated with coal.

At least one environmental group, Forecast the Facts, has called on the Obama campaign to pull its ad criticizing Gov. Romney’s “coal kills” comments. Brad Johnson, campaign manager for that group, said:

This ad is the height of political cynicism. Voters in Ohio and Virginia are already suffering the ravages of coal pollution, from dirty lungs to poisoned weather. President Obama should be ending his silence on climate change, not perpetuating the myth that burning coal has a viable place on a livable planet by criticizing Romney’s since-recanted moment of truth about dirty coal.

Of course, President Obama — and Gov. Romney for that matter — could both stop this race to pander on coal issues and give voters some straight talk. They could explain not only some of the clear downsides of coal and their plans to protect the environment, miners and folks who live near mining, but talk about all of the factors besides regulations that are behind the current decline. Then, they could provide some detailed vision of exactly what steps they would take to improve educational systems, better infrastructure, and diversify the economies of our nation’s coalfields.