Coal Tattoo

What could President Obama say about coal?

President Barack Obama speaks during a memorial for the victims of the Upper Branch Mine explosion at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center in Beckley, W.Va., Sunday, April 25, 2010. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

We’ve covered several times on this blog (see here, here and here) how silly it is for the only thing President Obama says about the coal industry to be taking a shot at Gov. Mitt Romney’s perfectly truthful statement that pollution from coal-fired power plants kills people.

On Friday, the president was at it again, throwing this line into his “Romnesia” speech:

If you say that you’re a champion of the coal industry when, while you were governor you stood in front of a coal plant and said, this plant will kill you.

I think everybody gets his point, that he’s trying to illustrate that Gov. Romney flip-flopped on the issue, or is just saying whatever is convenient at the time. But as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson explained in criticizing the lack of discussion of global warming in this year’s presidential race, elections are “an opportunity to educate and engage the American people in the decisions” our nation makes. And by not responding in any more substantive way to the allegations about his coal policies, President Obama gives up an opportunity to educate the public — and maybe even pick up a few voters along the way.

When I last wrote about this, some readers responded that they didn’t blame President Obama for not really engaging in any more meaningful way on the issue — that coal is a loser for him, so he’s best to steer clear of it.

I wondered if that was really true, or if there were things the president could say that might both be good politics and good policy. I asked some folks for suggestions about short responses President Obama could use when the “war on coal” comes up in a debate, or language the president could drop into his regular stump speeches before appropriate audiences. Below are some of the responses I received. (Some folks wrote as if the president were speaking, while others did not).

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake:

Barak Obama has spent record amounts on clean coal technology. Employment in coal country is at a 17 year record high. Obama is committed to a full energy policy that uses all our energy resources old and new. He is committed to growth in mining employment and plans to continue moving forward in coal without sacrificing our miners’ safety, the environment, or affordable energy. Seventy three percent of our coal fired plants are over 30 years old. Retirement of coal fired plants is due to the economics of old coal plants and natural gas prices. This entire debate however shows a deeper flaw in our system and that is citizens united. The campaign, ads, billboards, and unprecedented threats and requirements of workers is due to unlimited anonymous spending that should not be allowed in our system.

West Virginia University law professor Pat McGinley:

Coal will be an important part of our energy future for years to come. But coal use comes at a cost. Part of that cost is the ten thousand American coal miners who died in a decade from black lung disease. And the disease is on the rise. My Labor Department has been trying to strictly limit work place coal dust that is crippling and killing our miners. But, Republicans in Congress have blocked our effort to save miner’s lives — If Governor Romney really cared about coal miners and their families he could  have demanded Republicans in Congress stop blocking our efforts to end black lung disease. I admit my administration is fighting a war alright — it’s a war to save miners lives, make coal mines safer and to protect the health and safety of the American people – and it is a war that I intend to win.

Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign:

I’m from Illinois, where we’ve mined and burned a lot of coal over the years, and so I understand that coal has been a big part of the history and economy of this nation and of many states, including West Virginia, for a long time, and it still is today. At the same time, everyone here also knows that there are big changes facing the industry, changes West Virginia’s beloved Senator Robert Byrd urged the industry and the state to anticipate and adapt to, a couple of years before he passed away. We all know there’s a finite supply of coal in the ground – it’s not going to be around forever – and the science is clear that when we mine and burn it we cause our neighbors heart attacks, breathing problems, and even early deaths, not to mention heating the planet and leaving our grandchildren and great-grandchildren a very uncertain future. That’s why my administration has tackled some of the worst pollution from coal – like mercury and carbon – while also laying the foundation for an economy powered by the clean energy technologies of the 21st century, an industry we need to be building right here in America, and right here in West Virginia.

Dan Radmacher, communications director for Appalachian Mountain Advocates:

Coal has fueled America for generations, but always at a far higher price than our electric bills reflected. Coal mining, especially mountaintop removal mining, devastates the land and communities around it. Every day, new scientific studies indicate that mining sickens and kills many of those who live nearby. Coal-fired power plants pollute the air, water and land for hundreds of miles around them. And, yes, as Gov. Romney said years ago, they kill people. Coal ash – the residue left after the coal is burned for electricity – is also toxic, and practically nothing has been done to regulate the disposal of this toxic waste.

Finally, coal is one of the primary contributors to greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate changes across the globe, changes that will accelerate and become ever more severe if we do not reduce those emissions now.

Still, coal will continue to be an important part of the American energy mixture for decades to come. I know I’ve talked about my support of ‘clean coal,’ but what I should have been promoting was ‘cleaner coal,’ because there is no such thing as clean coal. We need to put in some sort of carbon tax that will motivate power companies to invest in carbon sequestration and storage technologies that are the only way we can continue to burn coal without catastrophic impact on the globe. We need to enforce environmental regulations completely to mitigate the worst of the environmental damage caused by the mining and burning of coal. We need to ensure that coal is mined safely and that every coal miner who goes to work in the morning comes home safe at night.

This is not about a war on coal, or coal miners. This is about finally recognizing the true cost of coal for the regions where it’s mined and burned, and for the world as a whole, and finding ways to reduce that cost as much as possible.