The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The repeated claim that Obama ‘vowed’ to bankrupt coal plants

In this ad from Crossroads GPS, the group says that Allison Lundergan Grimes is too closely aligned with President Obama and not the people of Kentucky. (Video: YouTube: Crossroads GPS)

“[Alison] Grimes helped nominate Obama even after he vowed to bankrupt coal plants”

–new ad by Crossroads GPS

Two new ads by GOP-leaning Crossroads GPS slam Kentucky Democratic Senate nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes with a similar theme — that Obama “vowed” to bankrupt the coal industry. (The second ad, a 15-second hit, says: “She says she supports coal but she backed Obama after he vowed to bankrupt coal.”)

This made us wonder: When did the president make such a statement? (For her part, Grimes also runs ads saying she opposes Obama on “gun, coal and the EPA.” The ad makes the dubious connection that because she, as a Democrat, supports Obama and because Obama hates coal, she’s anti-coal)

The Facts

Crossroads spokesman Paul Lindsay pointed us to an interview that Obama gave to the San Francisco Chronicle in January 2008 — before he became president. He was then just a senator, but he was running for president, and he was asked about his proposal for an aggressive cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse gas emissions and provide incentives to turn to new technologies. Lindsey sent us this clip:

In the clip, Obama says: “So if somebody wants to build a coal power plant, they can. It’s just that it will bankrupt them because they are going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.”

On the surface, it seems pretty cut and dried. But it’s just a 12-second clip. What did Obama say in the rest of his answer?

This is what came before that statement, which was prompted by question asking how he squared his support for coal and his promise to limit greenhouse gas emissions, given that coal is considered such a pollutant.

“This notion of no coal, I think, is an illusion, because the fact of the matter is that right now, we are getting a lot of our energy from coal, and China is building a coal-fired plant once a week. So what we have to do then is we have to figure out how can we use coal without emitting greenhouse gases and carbon. And how can we sequester that carbon and capture it? If we can’t, then we’re going to still be working on alternatives.”

Then Obama goes on to describe his version of a cap-and-trade system, which he said would create “market in which whatever technologies out there are being presented, whatever power plants are being built, that they would have to meet the rigors of that market and the ratcheted-down caps that are imposed every year.” Then he said the sentence that forms the basis for this “bankrupt” claim.

In other words, Obama was talking about disincentives to building coal-powered plants with old technology, not coal plants with cleaner technology. That’s an important distinction. He is also talking about a hypothetical, not making a “vow” to bankrupt coal operators.

The full interview can be seen here. (The coal discussion starts at 25:15.)

As for Obama’s cap-and-trade proposal, it never emerged from Congress. The administration has announced rules to cut carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants by up to 30 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, which certainly could be fodder for an ad—but that’s not the same thing as a snippet of a conversation from nearly seven years ago.

The Pinocchio Test

This is another one of those gotcha statements, when an inartfully worded statement is treated as a moment of high policy. In context, it’s clear that Obama made no vow to bankrupt coal operators — though he clearly wanted to push for a system that would promote cleaner uses of coal and other forms of energy and a phase-out of dirtier plants. Given that his old proposal is dead and buried, it seems odd to dredge it up again and again.

Two Pinocchios

(About our rating scale)

Send us facts to check by filling out this form

Follow The Fact Checker on Twitter and friend us on Facebook