“The host asked her this question: ‘Some people called it a war on coal.’ And the host said, ‘I hope it is a war on coal. Is it?’ After a moment of indirection, Administrator McCarthy conceded that a war on coal is quote ‘exactly what it is.’ The EPA Administrator said a war on coal is quote ‘exactly what this is.’”
–Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), floor speech, June 17, 2014
Everyone in Washington seems to love the “gotcha” moments. A politician could say the same thing over and over, but one slip up can easily become part of the Twitter-Cable TV feedback loop.
So now let’s look at the case of what EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy actually said on the Bill Maher Show on June 13. Did she actually declare a “war on coal’?
First, here’s the clip, with the transcript below.
Bill Maher: Last week announced, I think it was called the ‘Clean Power Program.’ Some people called it a war on coal. I hope it is a war on coal. Is it?
McCarthy: Actually, EPA is all about fighting against pollution and fighting for public health. That’s exactly what this is.
Maher: Oh, great!
McCarthy’s message here is certainly a bit muddled. When asked if there was a war on coal, she did not answer with a simple “No.” Instead, she offered a line she has said many times before—that the EPA fights against pollution. McConnell certainly appears to be leaping to a conclusion to think that “that’s exactly what this is” refers to the war on coal, instead of a fight against pollution.
The trouble is, others on the left also leapt to this conclusion. Maher seems thrilled with her answer and the audience applauds. Some environmental groups also quickly embraced the idea that McCarthy had admitted to a war on coal. Ecowatch.com, in an article headlined “EPA Administrator Declares War on Coal on ‘Real Time With Bill Maher,” said she “refused to tiptoe in describing what her announcement of the president’s emissions proposal and goals really meant.” Another Web site, Grist.org, was a bit more cautious but said: “McCarthy’s kinda-declaration-of-war comes not a moment too soon. In fact, some would argue that it’s long overdue.”
McConnell’s Democratic rival in the hard-fought Senate race in Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes, also thought McCarthy had declared war. She issued a blistering statement: “This is precisely the heavy-handed, dismissive attitude of the Obama administration and the EPA leadership that I have objected to so strongly.”
Thomas Reynolds, EPA’s assistant administrator for external affairs, says this is a “bogus issue.” He points to several examples of when McCarthy was asked this question and made it clear the administration did not have a war on coal.
In a congressional hearing in March:
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.): “And do you think it’s fair to say, maybe the EPA has somewhat of a war on coal so that we can lessen our dependence upon coal in this country?”
McCarthy: “Senator, I don’t think that that’s fair to say. What we’re trying to do is our job to protect public health by reducing pollution from some of the largest sources …”
McCarthy: “…of those pollutions.”
In an interview with The New York Times following her confirmation last summer:
“We don’t have a war on coal,” she [McCarthy] said. “We’re doing our business, which is to reduce pollution. We’re following the law.”
In an interview with Bloomberg news in June:
Peter Cook: “The argument is this is a war on coal. You are putting coal out of business with this proposal.”
McCarthy: “Well if you take a look at it, what we’re projecting is that coal in 2030 will still be a very significant portion of the electric generating capacity here. And what we’re hoping that folks will do is realize that this is an opportunity to actually make investments in coal, to make them more efficient so that we can have the best and cleanest facilities moving forward. But the ultimate choice is going to be up to the states. Do they want to shift towards more renewables? Do they want to focus on energy efficiency? Do they want to do all of those things together?”
Moreover, after McConnell’s floor speech, McCarthy tweeted:
Can’t be more clear: there is no war on coal. Clean Power Plan is about reducing pollution and fighting for public health.— Gina McCarthy (@GinaEPA) June 17, 2014
“We don’t have control over how other people interpret things,” Reynolds said. “We can only control what we say. And we’ve been crystal clear on this issue. As I’ve demonstrated.”
Don Stewart, spokesman for McConnell, concedes that McCarthy has denied a war on coal before.
“That’s why we were so surprised when she agreed with Bill Maher on his live television program,” he said. “After denying it over and over again, she went on TV and agreed with the host. Clearly we weren’t the only ones who took it that way—the host was pleased (‘oh, great!’) and the audience applauded. She didn’t correct the host or the audience. So either she agreed with the host (‘that’s exactly what this is’) or she let the host/audience have that impression uncorrected. I watched the show live and was stunned.”
Stewart added: “Issuing a tweet several days after the interview is not the same as standing up to Bill Maher in person if he was mischaracterizing her position.”
The Pinocchio Test
McCarthy certainly would have made things easier with a declarative “no.” The failure to say those words let people interpret her comments as they wanted—and clearly even some of her allies thought she had declared a war on coal.
But this was live TV and people can make mistakes. This one gotcha moment has to be measured against the many times she made a clear denial. While her remarks are open to interpretation, McConnell (and others) were too quick to assume the most extreme interpretation. Now that she has firmly denied it, yet again, this so-called gaffe should be relegated to the dustbin of history.
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