How Obama went from coal’s top cheerleader to its No. 1 enemy
This excerpt is adapted from the new book Struggling for Air: Power Plants and the “War on Coal.”
To Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, the threat was clear: “Mr. Speaker, there is a war being waged on energy and on coal in this country. But it’s not coming from another country, it is coming from our own government.” Her colleague Mike Pompeo of Kansas agreed: “President Obama’s war on coal means fewer jobs and higher energy costs for Americans.” Those who believed otherwise, West Virginia Rep. David McKinley warned, were “in dangerous denial.”
It was Sept. 20, 2012, two months before a presidential election that would pit incumbent Barack Obama against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and the U.S. House of Representatives was preparing to vote on the bluntly titled “Stop the War on Coal Act.” Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee called the proposed legislation, which would strip the EPA of its power to regulate coal-mining operations and coal-fired power plants under a host of federal laws, “the single worst anti-environment bill to be considered in the House this Congress.” But the bill’s sponsors argued that significantly curtailing the EPA’s authority over the coal industry was the only way to prevent the president’s war from claiming “even more victims.”
The Stop the War on Coal Act passed the House on Sept. 21, 2012, in a 233–175 vote, with the support of 19 Democrats. No one thought it had any chance of moving in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Instead, the House’s vote, which would be its last act before Election Day, was “only meant to be an instrument to bludgeon Obama and other Democrats,” as one commentator put it — a reminder to the coal-country electorate of the existential threat posed by the current president and his party.
It hadn’t always been this way. On the contrary, four years earlier, Obama had enjoyed a brief, involuntary tenure as the coal industry’s “spokesperson-in-chief.” About a month after Obama emerged victorious from the 2008 election, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a “partnership of the industries involved in producing electricity from coal,” released an advertisement made up entirely of video excerpts from a speech he had given at a September 2008 campaign rally in Lebanon, Va. In the footage, Obama proclaimed that “clean coal technology” could make America “energy independent,” and expressed confidence that the pollution generated by coal combustion could be dealt with: “This is America. We figured out how to put a man on the moon in 10 years. You can’t tell me we can’t figure out how to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States of America and make it work.” The ad ran for months.
And ACCCE wasn’t alone in characterizing Obama as a coal supporter. During the 2008 campaign, coal-state Democrats had proven equally eager to brand their party’s candidate as a “friend of coal.” Longtime Congressman Nick Rahall of West Virginia, for instance, expressed certainty that Obama would be better for the industry than John McCain.
On the one hand, the portrayal of Obama as a cheerleader for coal wasn’t entirely unfounded. He did, after all, hail from Illinois, a major coal producer. As a U.S. senator, he had cosponsored a bill with Republican Jim Bunning of Kentucky to provide up to $8 billion in subsidies for controversial coal-to-liquid fuel technologies. Earlier, while serving in the Illinois State Senate, he had publicly criticized a mercury regulation proposed by President George W. Bush that he felt unfairly favored Western coal over the variety produced in Illinois.
And, as the ACCCE ads emphasized, Obama was an enthusiastic proponent of developing so-called “clean coal” plants — facilities equipped with technology that could capture at least some of their carbon dioxide emissions and then sequester the trapped gas underground where it wouldn’t contribute to climate change. Indeed, the economic stimulus package Obama pushed through Congress in February 2009 included $3.4 billion in funding for pilot carbon-capture projects.
But there was a corollary to the president’s support for “clean coal” technology that neither ACCCE nor Rahall cared to emphasize: a belief that the status quo of burning coal without capturing its CO2 emissions was environmentally unsustainable. Obama was bullish on clean coal but bearish on dirty coal. His support for coal-to-liquid fuel subsidies in the Senate, for instance, was ultimately conditioned on a requirement that the fuel’s production and use generate at least 20 percent less CO2 than the production and use of conventional petroleum. More important, as a presidential candidate, he had publicly and repeatedly vowed to impose a cap-and-trade system that would cut American greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Under such a system, any power plant that burned fossil fuels would need to buy a permit — from either the government or a fellow polluter — for each ton of CO2 it emitted. This was a particularly onerous prospect for coal plants because they emit twice as much CO2 per kilowatt-hour of electricity as their natural gas–fired counterparts. In other words, coal plant owners operating under a cap would likely have to spend a great deal on permits, invest a great deal in emission-reducing technologies like carbon capture, or simply close down.
The coal industry was happy to burnish its public image by broadcasting a then-very-popular new president’s support for the idea of “clean coal.” It was happier still to accept taxpayer dollars for the testing of pollution-reducing technologies. But it had no interest in spending its own money on such reduction efforts. As a result, as soon as the new White House’s focus shifted from doling out stimulus funds to following through on the president’s cap-and-trade pledge, the coal PR machine undertook a shift of its own. With surprising speed, Obama’s public image went from that of coal’s biggest fan to its No. 1 enemy.
Rise of the rhetoric
The first rumblings of conflict were heard in the spring of 2009, after the White House released a budget that anticipated significant revenue from cap-and-trade emissions auctions — almost $650 billion over a 10-year period. At the time, a staff writer for the Dayton Daily News in Ohio predicted that the president’s plan would “ignite a new War Between the States in Congress, pitting the coal-dependent states against those that use other forms of energy.” But coal country turned out to be less interested in blaming other states for cap-and-trade than in blaming the president. When the cap-and-trade legislation overcame its first congressional hurdle, a May 2009 vote of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Republican Rep. Bob Latta of Ohio told the press, “It almost looks like Obama and the Democrats declared war on Ohio and Indiana.” By the time the bill passed the full House in late June, there was no “almost” about it, at least not for the editors of the Charleston Daily Mail in West Virginia, who declared that the “war on coal, and the accompanying cap-and-trade mumbo-jumbo, would clobber West Virginia and West Virginians.”
The rhetoric snowballed from there. In October 2009, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce deemed the “war on coal” serious enough to justify taking a hostage: health-care reform. The Chamber demanded (without success) that its home-state senators block the Affordable Care Act until the Obama administration backed down on its “campaign against coal.” The following spring, when the EPA tightened its Clean Water Act permitting standards for mountaintop mines, a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, Luke Popovich, suggested that the president was “parking his tanks on [mining companies’] front lawns.”
The “war” next emerged as a dominant theme in West Virginia’s 2010 midterm elections, with Democrats and Republicans alike scrambling to prove they loved coal more. The state’s popular Democratic governor, Joe Manchin, gained an edge in his Senate race only after producing an ad in which he literally shot a copy of the cap-and-trade bill. Rep. Rahall, too, was forced to distance himself from the White House, just two years after endorsing Obama as “committed to coal.” Rather than denying his Republican opponent’s claims that “Pelosi and Obama have declared war on coal,” Rahall argued that his seniority in the Democratic Party left him better positioned to fight the administration’s environmental initiatives, going so far as to compare his unsung success at blocking committee votes on mining restrictions to the thwarting of terrorist attacks.
Confined primarily to Appalachian media in 2010, the PR campaign for the “war on coal” went national during the 2012 presidential election. Minutes into the first debate, Mitt Romney announced, “I like coal,” and suggested that people in the coal industry felt they were “getting crushed by [Obama’s] policies.” A Romney television ad accused Obama of “attacking [the] livelihood” of coal miners, and ACCCE piled on with ads of its own that criticized the EPA’s “heavy-handed regulations.” Not surprisingly, “war on coal” reached its most heavily searched period on Google in November 2012.
But for all the advertising dollars spent (ACCCE’s efforts alone cost $35 million), the “war” narrative ended up holding little sway with voters outside Appalachia. Romney won West Virginia and Kentucky by wide margins, but he lost coal-producing swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia — and, with them, the presidency.
Peeling back the propaganda
If proponents of the “war on coal” narrative were chastened by defeat in 2012, they didn’t stay that way for long. Seven years into the Obama presidency, complaints about his supposed siege on the coal industry still make headlines. These days, with the failed cap-and-trade bill a distant political memory, the most commonly cited evidence of “war” are three EPA restrictions on pollution from power plants: the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, commonly known as the Transport Rule, which prevents plants in upwind states from exporting dangerous soot- and smog-forming pollution to their downwind neighbors; the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which restrict plants’ emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants; and the Clean Power Plan, which will limit plants’ emissions of climate change–driving carbon dioxide. Together, the rules are expected to prevent tens of thousands of premature deaths each year.
“War” critics, though, focus less on the benefits of the regulations than on the Obama administration’s motives for issuing them. Rather than an earnest effort to protect public health, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sees the EPA’s initiatives as an “elitist” and “ideological crusade,” led by officials who simply “don’t like” coal.
There’s just one problem with this “malice of the elite” theory: It’s hard to condemn policies as products of presidential animus when they weren’t the president’s idea to begin with. And the truth is that not one of the rules mentioned above was entirely discretionary.
The Transport Rule, for example, was a necessary replacement for the George W. Bush EPA’s Clean Air Interstate Rule, which had been struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and left in place only to give the EPA time to fashion a substitute. Bush’s rule was itself a successor to a Clinton-era regulation, the “NOx SIP Call.” And, in issuing their respective rules, all three administrations — Clinton, Bush, and Obama — acted pursuant to the Clean Air Act’s “Good Neighbor Provision,” which Congress first passed all the way back in 1977, under President Carter.
The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, too, were crafted to replace a George W. Bush–era rule that the D.C. Circuit had vacated, the Clean Air Mercury Rule. The Obama administration didn’t have the option of not replacing the earlier regulation, thanks to a Clinton-era determination that it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate power plants’ mercury emissions. And the only reason the Clinton administration had considered that question in the first place was because the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 — passed at the urging of the first Bush administration — required it to do so.
The regulation of power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Power Plan was similarly preordained. In 2007, the Supreme Court found in Massachusetts v. EPA that the agency could decline to regulate greenhouse gas pollution from cars and trucks only by making one of two findings: (1) that greenhouse gases did not contribute to climate change, or (2) that the uncertainty surrounding climate change was so “profound” that the EPA could not make a “reasoned judgment” as to whether greenhouse gases contributed to climate change. Given the existence of what EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson would later describe as “decades of sound, peer-reviewed, extensively evaluated scientific data” linking greenhouse gas emissions to climate change, the agency could not defensibly reach either of those conclusions.
And once the EPA took steps to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks, it didn’t have a persuasive defense against a 2010 lawsuit brought by states and environmental organizations seeking to compel it to do the same for power plants. The legal triggers for regulating emissions of a particular pollutant from motor vehicles under Section 202(a) of the Clean Air Act and those from “stationary sources” under Section 111 are almost identical. In other words, having already found that greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks contributed to dangerous climate change, the agency was going to have a pretty difficult time convincing a court that emissions from power plants didn’t pose a similar threat, especially considering that power plants were (and still are) the largest source of carbon dioxide in the United States. Accordingly, EPA settled the suit in December 2010 and agreed to craft greenhouse gas standards for power plants. Just shy of five years later, it fulfilled that obligation by issuing the Clean Power Plan.
There’s no doubt that the Obama administration has played a pivotal role in implementing the Transport Rule, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, and the Clean Power Plan. Even though EPA had preexisting statutory and/or judicial obligations to promulgate each rule, a different White House might have tried to delay the day of reckoning. It is to Obama’s credit that, under his watch, the EPA has embraced rather than evaded its legal responsibilities.
Nevertheless, it’s important to recognize that those legal responsibilities were not created by the current president. Instead, they are the product of five decades of legislative and regulatory efforts by prior administrations of both parties.
In the end, Obama’s environmental policies may be components of a larger struggle, but that struggle is not an unprecedented, unilateral, and ideological “war on coal.”
Correction, 17 Feb 2016: This post originally identified David McKinley as a U.S. representative from Virginia. He is in fact a U.S. representative from West Virginia.