Coal Tattoo

Smokestacks at the Colstrip Steam Electric Station, are seen  Monday July 1, 2013, inm Colstrip, Mont. The plant emits an estimated 17 million tons of carbon dioxide annually _ emissions that President Barack Obama is looking to curb to combat climate change. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

It’s hardly surprising to see the Daily Mail and West Virginia MetroNews immediately launching into full-out attacks on President Obama’s climate policy. We’ve become accustomed to them falling in line with the coal industry’s “war on coal” rhetoric and public relations campaign. And let’s face it, much — not all, but much — of the media coverage of coal issues during last year’s presidential election failed to ask hard questions and present clear facts that voters could use to make decisions at the polls (see here and here).

But it’s disappointing to already see other pieces that  fall into the trap of writing about coal politics as if the point is to capture the horse-race aspect of it all — whether the president’s plan to try to deal with the climate crisis is good or bad for one political party or politician — rather than look more broadly at what it all means for coalfield communities. Take the one that the New York Times headlined G.O.P. Sees Opportunity for Election Gains in Obama’s Climate Change Policy, which started off like this:

When President Obama announced strong measures to combat climate change last week, environmentalists who felt he had long soft-pedaled the issue for political reasons rejoiced.

But many Republicans were just as gleeful — in the belief they had been handed a powerful issue to use against Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections in energy-rich states from Texas to Minnesota.

Elected officials and political analysts said the president’s crackdown on coal, the leading source of industrial greenhouse gases, could have consequences for Senate seats being vacated by retiring Democrats in West Virginia and South Dakota, for shaky Democratic incumbents like Mary L. Landrieu of energy-rich Louisiana, and for the Democratic challenger of Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.

In ordering limits for the first time on carbon dioxide emissions from up-and-running power plants, Mr. Obama jabbed that opponents belonged to “the Flat Earth Society.” But in coal country, it was Mr. Obama who was called out of touch, with predictions of job losses and spiking energy bills.

Republicans immediately went on the attack against Democratic House members in mining states, posting Web ads with a 2008 sound bite of Mr. Obama predicting regulating carbon emissions would cause electricity prices to “necessarily skyrocket.”

Asked about the impact of the president’s actions on his own re-election prospects next year, Representative Nick J. Rahall II, Democrat of West Virginia, said, “They don’t help.”

It’s become increasingly difficult to feel sorry for Rep. Rahall. He’s given up any pretense of trying to protect the legacy of the federal Surface Mining Act, a landmark law whose final version he helped craft as a freshman congressman serving on a House-Senate conference committee some 36 years ago. Instead of speaking up for coalfield citizens who face increased risks of serious illnesses living near mountaintop removal sites, Rep. Rahall joins with Republicans to try to weaken crucial environmental and public health protections meant to guard against coal industry abuses.

More importantly, Rep. Rahall has begun pushing the envelop toward climate change denial, making no effort to provide a different narrative than the Republican candidates and career campaign consultants who have tried to hard for so long to unseat him.

More on that in a minute. Let’s to back and look at what the liberal media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting said about that New York Times piece. Under the headline Obama’s ‘War on Coal’ Isn’t Real–But It’s Really in the Newspaper, FAIR explained:

It’d be nice if newspapers covered policy fights as if reality mattered. But corporate media generally prefers to cover politics as a form of public relations–which involves the creation of a reality that you think will help your side win … to the New York Times, the GOP’s political posturing and rhetoric matter more than this reality. “Republicans immediately went on the attack against Democratic House members in mining states,” readers learn. According to one person quoted, Obama “was already the most anti-coal president we’ve ever had, and now he’s doubled down.”

President Barack Obama wipes perspiration from his face as he speaks about climate change at Georgetown University in Washington, Tuesday, June 25, 2013. The president is proposing sweeping steps to limit heat-trapping pollution from coal-fired power plants and to boost renewable energy production on federal property, resorting to his executive powers to tackle climate change and sidestepping the partisan gridlock in Congress. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

FAIR continues:

The Times piece is remarkably similar to a GOP press release (6/26/13) on the very same issue , sent out right after the Obama speech. In it you see an array of industry-friendly Democrats and Republicans taking aim at the White House. And both the GOP and the Times cite the same obscure factoid about how the new regulations will kill thousands of jobs.

Here’s how the Times put it: 

Environmental groups applauded the initiatives even as one report said 37,000 jobs at coal-fired plants were threatened.

Wow– applauding the destruction of 37,000 jobs!

But what is “one report,” exactly? The research comes from the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank started by former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman. The current director is former McCain adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who has also done stints at the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation. The group has a 501(c)(4) arm, the American Action Network, that spends millions of dollars on campaign ads for Republican politicians. Donor lists for the Forum appear to be confidential; the Network has reported receiving $4.5 million from the pharmaceutical industry, among other corporate donors.

In other words, this is information you might want to know if you’re trying to figure out where this “report” is coming from.

Why would the Times not reveal the source of this critique of environmental regulations–to not even name the group that produced the research? And if that factoid was important, why not point out that the coal industry accounts for thousands of deaths every year? That would be reality-based, which is evidently less important than partisan posturing and GOP election strategy.

Over at the National Journal, Coral Davenport provided another much better look at the politics of all this, in a piece headlined Why the ‘War on Coal’ Campaign Will Likely Fall Flat—Again, reporting:

Within hours of President Obama’s sweeping climate speech last week, Republican campaign committees reignited the charge that the president has declared “War on Coal.” They blasted inboxes and airwaves with “War on Coal” talking points, now aimed squarely at Democrats running in Senate and House races in 2014.

The “War on Coal campaign” failed to unseat Obama in the 2012 presidential campaign. And despite the potency of the rhetorical attack, it’s unlikely to have much impact on the 2014 races.

It’s true that President Obama’s plan takes direct aim at the U.S. coal industry. At the heart of the plan are new regulations slashing carbon pollution from new and existing coal-fired power plants. It could well put thousands of coal miners out of work.

But it’s not a given that it will cost Democrats politically.

The story explains:

Here’s why: As National Journal reported last week, the political power of coal has fundamentally weakened, a shift laid bare by last year’s elections. Between 2008 and 2012, the coal industry nearly quadrupled its political contributions, directing 90 percent of its money towards Republicans. But Obama still won comfortably in the four key swing states that produce the most coal: Virginia, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Thanks to a recent boom in cheap natural gas—which has brought with it a boom in domestic manufacturing—coal is a smaller piece of the economy than it once was. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are only 84,000 people employed in the coal-mining industry—a number that just isn’t enough to make a difference in a national election.

And it may not be enough to make a difference in the midterms, where Democrats are chiefly focused on holding on to their four-seat majority in the Senate and where most political analysts say they’re unlikely to muster enough new seats to reclaim a majority in the House.

And then, remarkably:

Republican operatives say the broader point of their “War on Coal” attack is that Obama is abusing his executive authority to crack down on the energy industry at large—a message that they believe will still resonate in red states, whether or not they’re coal producers.

“It’s not just about coal regulations. Barack Obama and Harry Reid have been very clear that coal is first, oil is next,” wrote National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Brook Hougesen, in an e-mail to National Journal. “They want to empower the EPA to take an even MORE aggressive role than it has today. That means more red tape regulation, more government headaches, more fees, more taxes, and more costs that would cripple entire industries and destroy jobs. A War on Coal is only the first phase of the radical left’s plan. … Men and women like driving their car, watching TV, using their iPhones and iPads, sending e-mails, and using Facebook. They like cooking with a stove instead of over a campfire. They like their homes to be lit by more than a candle. Americans are beginning to realize that the Democrats’ ‘War on Coal’ and ‘War on Oil’ is really a ‘War on Modernity.’ “

War on Modernity? It’s really hard to know where to start having a conversation about silly talk like this.  But to get back to Rep. Rahall, one thing that Democratic political leaders — especially from the coalfields — might do is to call this stuff what it is: Nonsense. They could tell the truth — that there’s nothing about an effort to move technology forward, to have the richest and most powerful nation on the planet take a lead role in trying to stop the climate crisis that in any way amounts to a “war on modernity.”

By refusing to really talk about climate change and the dangers it poses, coal-state Democrats like Rep. Rahall are really playing right into the Republicans’ hands. As long as coalfield communities don’t understand the science and the real threats to our global society, they and the coal industry — and most of the local media — can more easily make any effort to control coal’s greenhouse emissions seem like some “war” on something, as an attack on “our way of life.”

But as new polling data clearly shows, coalfield residents in West Virginia are ready for a different sort of discussion.   They know that, while coal mining will continue for some time to come, coal isn’t the only thing and probably not even the main thing that will drive the future.  Coalfield communities need to diversify, and one crucial factor in that will be elected leaders willing to truly engage in a discussion about how to best do that.  A few West Virginia leaders like Senate President Jeff Kessler and new House Speaker Tim Miley may be starting to realize that, but both need to speak even more often about the topic.

At the same time, maintaining some presence for the coal industry, and also reducing greenhouse emissions from coal-fired power plants, is going to require a major move toward deploying carbon capture and storage technology. And no one really believes that’s going to happen unless there is a firm regulatory structure in place that puts a price on those carbon emissions and makes it not only attractive, but necessary, for utilities to act.

Coalfield elected officials like Rep. Rahall could be making the case that climate change is happening, and that the coal industry need to do its part to solve the problem, rather than going right on ahead with the Republican “head in the sand” strategy that drives the “war on coal” campaign.