Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Obama Plan to Bankrupt Coal Industry? Not.

In my worst nightmares as the presidential campaign neared its end, I envisioned the Bush Administration bombing Iran as its "October surprise," a game-changing event designed to push the election to McCain.

Thankfully, this didn't happen. Instead, in the past couple of days Republicans dredged up a recording of an interview Obama gave earlier this year in which he talked about the future of the U.S. coal industry.

I was supposed to be shocked and dismayed by an email that landed in my inbox with the headline:  "Obama Plan to 'Bankrupt' Clean Coal Would Cost Thousands of Jobs." 

Just as with so many campaign ads this political season, the words in that headline are a gross distortion. Here's why.

First, Obama has no plan whose intent is to bankrupt the coal industry. What he did say was that he would put into place a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases that would, for the first time, put a dollar value emissions that contribute to global warming. Unless an electric utility were able to somehow contain the emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that come from burning coal, the utility would have to pay for each unit of gases it spews into the air. 

The effect of that system would be to put coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, at a disadvantage against electricity made from cleaner fuels. 

And, indeed, Obama said in that interview that under such a system, the marketplace would determine that coal is too expensive to compete, leading to the bankruptcy of coal system operators.

This, of course, would be a good thing. By making energy companies pay the real costs of their business activity, the market would function to favor the cleanest sources of energy, including, of course, solar, wind, biodiesel, etc. 

This of course, is a horrible prospect to the Western Business Roundtable, the group that sounded the alarm in the final day before the election.  Like so many Big Businesses who speak the praises of capitalism and free markets when they apply to someone else, they've gotten used to letting other people--read taxpayers--pay to clean up the environmental messes they leave behind. The Roundtable is an association of energy companies, oil, coal, & natural gas, active in western states. They and their brethren in the rest of the country, including the coal strip-mining companies engaged in taking the tops off mountains in West Virginia, want to be allowed to continue to despoil our beautiful land and warm our planet without paying the price for their action.

Mountaintop removal is something you have to see, at least in pictures, to understand the devastation it creates. To get at the coal underneath all those pesky trees, bushes and top soil these environmental vandals just blast away the mountain tops and dump hundreds of millions of tons of creation into nearby valleys. From the air, these huge strip mines look like lunar landscapes.

Second distortion: Always looking for the angle that can rouse ordinary folks to take their side, the Roundtable's alarmist email also raised the specter of the loss of "hundreds of thousands of jobs" if a cap-and-trade system made coal mining the market loser that it should be.

This would also be a good thing. The dirty, deadly job of underground coal mining might eventually become a bad memory.  Certainly those workers will need help during the transition away from coal, and that must be one of the uses to which emission payments should be put. As for the folks who run the giant machines that eat mountains, let's find work for them building and repairing bridges and roads and other beneficial public works.

The last distortion in the headline of that email lies in the words "clean coal." There's just no such thing. The death toll and injuries, the environmental devastation involved in mining coal are so overwhelming that this is an industry that should become obsolete. For an excellent overview of all that, have a look at this article in the Washington Post. 

Even if it does become possible to pump the greenhouse gases from electricity plants underground--an incredibly expensive idea--or, better, to feed the carbon dioxide to algae that can then be harvested to make biofuels--the production of coal itself is an insult to the earth. Using the adjective "clean" in relation to coal is, plain and simple, an oxymoron.

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