Coal Tattoo

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)

It seems like a long time ago that if President Obama would deliver a State of the Union address or other major speech that touched on energy there would be at least some vague mention of “clean coal.”

Last night, well … not so much.

Instead, President Obama’s discussion of such things last night in his final State of the Union went something like this:

Seven years ago, we made the single biggest investment in clean energy in our history.  Here are the results.  In fields from Iowa to Texas, wind power is now cheaper than dirtier, conventional power.  On rooftops from Arizona to New York, solar is saving Americans tens of millions of dollars a year on their energy bills, and employs more Americans than coal – in jobs that pay better than average.  We’re taking steps to give homeowners the freedom to generate and store their own energy – something environmentalists and Tea Partiers have teamed up to support.  Meanwhile, we’ve cut our imports of foreign oil by nearly 60 percent, and cut carbon pollution more than any other country on Earth.

Now, I don’t know about this business where solar “employs more Americans than coal.” The numbers touted by folks like The Solar Foundation seem to include a pretty broad brush, whereas the figures for the coal industry are a smaller subset that focuses more strictly on miners — not on things like manufacturing, sales and distribution or “project development.” I’m not sure it’s a completely fair comparison. This has been a popular comparison for the wind industry as well, and I’ve pointed out before how that bothered me as well.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman dismisses questions about these kinds of comparisons:

… While you might want to quibble with specific numbers, the boom in renewable energy is very real, as are the surging number of jobs in things like solar panel installation. I can’t imagine any calculation under which the number of green jobs added doesn’t exceed the loss in coal mining, which was already a shadow of its former self before Obama took office.

There’s no question that the boom in renewable energy is real. But there is also no question that coal’s downturn is hurting many families in the coalfields and it’s also hammering the budgets of coal-producing states like West Virginia.


President Obama, to his credit, has pushed for more money to help coalfield communities through the tough times and to transition into more diverse economies.  He hasn’t gotten a lot of help from coalfield elected officials, who would prefer to just keep pretending there’s no climate crisis and that EPA is the only cause of the mess their home states find themselves in.

The president continued this push last night, saying in his speech:

Now we’ve got to accelerate the transition away from dirty energy.  Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future – especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels.  That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.  That way, we put money back into those communities and put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a 21st century transportation system.

None of this will happen overnight, and yes, there are plenty of entrenched interests who want to protect the status quo.  But the jobs we’ll create, the money we’ll save, and the planet we’ll preserve – that’s the kind of future our kids and grandkids deserve.

Not for nothing, but(as SNL Energy’s Taylor Kuykendall pointed out on Twitter and Inside Climate News summarized here) the specific policy option that president referred to there is one supports of West Virginia’s coal industry should like: Reforming the federal coal leasing program in a way that could ultimately make Appalachian coal more competitive with the Powder River Basin.  Yet West Virginia elected officials had nothing good to say about any of that.

As West Virginia begins both a new Legislative session and the next round of elections, though, there are other parts of President Obama’s speech worth being considered by our state’s leaders and its people. If you missed it, check it out:

The future we want – opportunity and security for our families; a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids – all that is within our reach.  But it will only happen if we work together.  It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates.

It will only happen if we fix our politics.

A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything.  This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests.  That’s one of our strengths, too.  Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.

But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens.  It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic.  Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us.  Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention.  Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.

It’s hard to imagine a place in our country where the politics are deliberately more divisive — driven by career campaign consultants whose only real goal is for their “side” to win elections — than here in West Virginia.

We’ve spent nearly eight years now stuck in a rut dug by those who want to fuel the hatred for that president who doesn’t look like us and who has a funny name, someone who supposedly doesn’t understand — probably hates — our whole “way of life.” This politics has played on the fears of hard-working coal miners and their families, on the uncertain nature of the future economy — has convinced people that if we can just get rid of Obama, the good times will be rolling again in the coalfields.

Of course, this has been a partisan effort. Democrats have by and large played right along with this rhetoric. And at the risk of being accused once again of “false equivalency,” by the media, it’s also worth remembering that some of the things that West Virginia Democrats now want to poke at the Republicans about — like having lobbyists writing legislation — are things that the Democrats did quite a lot when they were in the majority in our Legislature (see here, here and here).

And the battle for power and control has reached the point where now, we literally have one political party suggesting that if it doesn’t like the way the state Supreme Court rules on a case, it will simply ignore that ruling.

The challenge we really face as a state is finding a way through this kind of politics, to a place where West Virginians work together, rather than tearing each other down, where we can have rational, constructive debates, to a place where we can look forward and not backward.