Coal Tattoo

Natalie Tennant

Sometimes these political campaigns seem like they’re just all fun and games — career campaign consultants and opposition researchers searching for a word here or there to try to win that day’s media cycle or at least make some imagined major point against their opponent.

The result?

Public discourse is diverted — and oftentimes terribly polluted — from discussing real issues faced by places like the coalfields of Central Appalachia.

The latest example was this press release, issued earlier this week  by Democratic Senate candidate Natalie Tennant’s campaign concerning plans for 2012 Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney to come to West Virginia to speak out for GOP candidates, including Secretary of State Tennant’s opponent, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito:

Longtime Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito announced today she is turning her back on West Virginia coal miners in favor of Wall Street dollars, as she plans to bring well-known coal enemy, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, to West Virginia for fundraising.  

“The fact that Congresswoman Capito would align herself with someone who believes coal ‘kills people’ just to make a quick buck shows how quickly she will turn her back on West Virginia coal miners to get Wall Street dollars,” said Tennant spokeswoman Jennifer Donohue

Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney: Coal’s Public Enemy #1

Mitt RomneyAs Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney stood in front of a coal plant, said it kills people and worked to shut it down.

“I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people, and that plant — that plant kills people,” Romney said.

Politifact rated claim that Romney  said the coal plant “kills people” TRUE.

But that’s not all . . . the LA Times details Romney’s long record working against coal. In fact Gina McCarthy worked for Romney:

 “Before doing an about-face toward the end of his term as he began to prepare for his first run for president, Romney pushed to close old coal-fired plants, encourage the development of renewable energy and contain sprawl — steps similar to some President Obama has taken.

Indeed, one of Romney’s top environmental staffers, Gina McCarthy, now runs the air pollution unit of the Environmental Protection Agency under Obama. John Holdren, a scientist Romney turned to on at least one occasion to discuss climate change, is the White House senior advisor on science and technology issues.”

The argument could be made that the so-called ‘War on Coal’ started with the 2007 Supreme Court decision that gave the EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. And guess who brought that suit . . . that’s right, Massachusetts, under Mitt Romney’s administration.

From the LA Times:

“The EPA curtailed greenhouse gas emissions as a result of a 2007 Supreme Court suit, Massachusetts vs. EPA, brought by the state’s attorney general during Romney’s tenure. While Romney played no role in the lawsuit, he wasn’t “hostile to it either,” said Seth Kaplan, vice president of policy at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston.”

Seriously? Wasn’t it enough that Secretary of State Tennant’s campaign tried to criticize Rep. Capito for supporting U.S. Department of Energy programs aimed at helping West Virginia businesses be more energy efficient, and thus reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Now, the Tennant campaign is trying one of the silliest things that President Obama’s re-election campaign tried two years ago.

Dirtiest Power Plant

As I wrote previously about this issue:

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.

It remains unclear how any of this sort of campaigning helps move West Virginia forward on tackling climate change. I mean, how does this explain the Tennant campaign’s refusal to support any sort of mandated reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and continue to push the notion — disputed by most experts — that carbon capture technology is going to be widely deployed without a price on carbon? Or how does it correct the record, and educate the public and voters, that what’s happening now in the coal industry is caused by far broader factors than EPA, as Rep. Capito’s ad — rated false and mostly false by PolitFact — would have us believe.

Last week, we saw the same sort of thing coming out of Kentucky’s Senate race, where a media report tried to make out like Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell might not be a pro-coal politician because of his wife’s connections with a foundation that funds the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign. The United Mine Workers of American umped on this quickly, issuing a statement saying:

One has to wonder just where Sen. McConnell is with respect to this, and whether he supports his wife’s continued service on the board of this organization, one whose actions have already cost thousands of coal miners in Kentucky and elsewhere their jobs.

Individuals who are seeking public office should try once in a while to lead, to talk seriously about serious problems, not allow campaign consultants or pollsters convince them to just use buzzwords and attack ads to try to win.

Unfortunately, campaign reporters are falling for this stuff (see here and here), in the continuing movement toward allowing election coverage to be decided by press releases from the career campaign consultants. Wouldn’t voters be better served if reporters did less of this and spent more time pressing candidates for their plans for addressing the climate crisis or diversifying the economy in the Central Appalachian coalfields?


Perhaps the campaigns and the campaign reporters need to go back and read what the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd told us not so terribly long ago:

… Change is undeniably upon the coal industry again.  The increased use of mountaintop removal mining means that fewer miners are needed to meet company production goals. Meanwhile the Central Appalachian coal seams that remain to be mined are becoming thinner and more costly to mine. Mountaintop removal mining, a declining national demand for energy, rising mining costs and erratic spot market prices all add up to fewer jobs in the coal fields.

These are real problems. They affect real people. And West Virginia’s elected officials are rightly concerned about jobs and the economic impact on local communities.  I share those concerns.  But the time has come to have an open and honest dialogue about coal’s future in West Virginia.