If you don’t think pandering can be a bipartisan effort, just look at how both parties are tripping over themselves to placate the coal industry.
Last week, an Obama campaign Web site on the president’s “all of the above” energy policy did not mention coal. This week, following industry complaints, it includes “clean coal” alongside solar, wind, nuclear and other electricity sources in its headlining graphic. Doing that, though, wasn’t enough for Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Barrasso, who released a memo Tuesday lambasting President Obama’s “War on Coal” (h/t National Journal).
Politicians’ oft-reaffirmed reverence for coal is interest-based favoritism at its worst. The fuel currently provides a lot of the country’s electricity inexpensively, which is important. But it is also fantastically dirty, contributing mightily to global warming and pumping a noxious collection of chemicals into the ambient air that increases the incidence of heart attacks and respiratory illnesses. By comparison, natural gas, the most economical substitute, produces only half the greenhouse emissions and much less non-greenhouse pollution.
Some coal advocates will admit that business as usual can’t keep on, which is why the government should support “clean coal.” That seems to be Obama’s position, as his Environmental Protection Agency puts limits on traditional coal burning. But that approach eliminates coal’s only attraction: its low price. There is little evidence that carbon capture and sequestration, the technology necessary to make coal anything like “clean,” is anything but extremely expensive.
And, yet, major political figures of both parties must pay lip service to the potential of coal in an “all of the above” — often code for “all interest groups get paid off” — energy strategy. The Obama campaign is now doing so to the exclusion of its most impressive achievement on energy policy, taking space on its Web site once devoted to the president’s new auto fuel-efficiency standards, which promise to reduce America’s incredible appetite for oil.
If “clean coal” is the energy of the future, it should prosper without special government help. A simple price on carbon emissions would reward the cheapest sources of clean energy. Such a policy would be “all of the above” in the sense that all technologies have an equal opportunity to compete, based on cost and cleanliness. If coal doesn’t want to play on that basis, it tells you something about how unattractive clean coal really is. Such a policy also does not require politicians to list all the energy technologies they like — or want others to think they like — on their Web sites, as though every one can be a winner.
Particularly following Barrasso’s bombast, filled with sky-is-falling predictions about slowly weaning the nation off coal, it is easy to understand the Obama campaign’s political motivations for altering their site. And, yet, as long as politicians give coal special rhetorical support, America’s energy debate will remain badly skewed — real costs ignored, indulging interest groups treated like sound policy.