This is the strongest statement either presidential candidate has made on coal.

“That plant kills people,” Mitt Romney said in 2003, pointing at the Salem Harbor power plant. He was right — one estimate suggests that 20 people die each year due to pollution from the plant, now managed by Dominion Energy. “They have thumbed their nose at the people of Massachusetts and Salem Harbor by not cleaning it up on time. So we’re saying, clean it up on time, do the job in the community, invest in cleaning technology.”

Romney’s language is far stronger than any President Obama has ever used on coal. In fact, the president’s campaign is using that line to attack Romney in radio ads in coal-producing states.

How the hell did this happen? How is it that the Democratic presidential candidate is embracing the most noxious form of energy production in America, while his opponent is on record saying that it should be cleaned up?

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

In 2003, Romney was governor of Massachusetts, a state that demands moderation from its Republicans. It’s a flashing glimpse of the Romney that could have been — a rich moderate of the noblesse oblige tradition, fighting for those needing a defender within view of those most likely to cast votes. And then 2008 happened and 2012 happened and the Romney that presented himself to the GOP electorate morphed. During the heat of last fall’s GOP primary, Romney changed his position on climate change. There is no way today’s Romney would even consider making a speech similar to that exhortation of 2003.

Obama’s advocacy took a different form. As a community organizer in Roseland, an area south of Chicago’s downtown, he focused on poverty. When he arrived in 1985, the environmental-justice movement — the push to recognize the unfairness of how pollution affects poor and minority populations — was just emerging. Obama’s work took place in a neighborhood ringed with polluting plants, facilities more dangerous than Salem Harbor to the north, west, and across the Indiana border to the east. An NAACP report recently pegged Chicago’s power plants as some of the worst in the nation [PDF]. But the environmental movement and the fight for equality hadn’t yet blended in 1985. The idea of a green job, for example, was not then in an organizer’s toolkit.

(Photo by Takver)

Photo by Tavker.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Obama seems never to have learned the lesson on coal. He’s never been outspoken on the issue. And while he vowed on the 2008 campaign trail to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050, he put little muscle behind that goal once in office. An early focus on green jobs quickly hit a Republican buzz saw, and Obama’s efforts on shifting energy systems were squelched.

With one key, prominent exception: the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has inched forward like a soldier on its belly, pushing ahead with slightly stronger guidelines on particulates, mercury, carbon emissions. Attempts to make a difference on ozone were rebuffed by the president, but the EPA has continued to do its job, despite taking an enormous amount of heat for doing so. The EPA is the stated reason that, despite the president’s inaction and Romney’s past rhetoric, coal companies are fuming at Barack Obama. A broad array of coal and mining company executives have pledged financial support for the Romney campaign, arguing that their industry is at risk from the EPA’s action.

The EPA-haters ignore the fact that the agency is just doing what’s required by law: enforcing the Clean Air Act. During the Bush era, the EPA tried to avoid doing its duty, and that resulted in a number of court orders that are now compelling the agency to get moving, most notably on mercury and carbon pollution.

Coal companies claim that new EPA regulations will harm their business and put the power grid at risk, but a new report from the Government Accountability Office suggests that these concerns are overblown. As The Hill reports:

GOP lawmakers, and the electric power industry, contend the rules will shutter too many coal-fired plants, potentially leading to more electricity blackouts. They also say it will increase electricity bills for residents in coal-heavy states.

The GAO report partially refuted the cost claim. It said the rules would increase rates unevenly — the coal-reliant South being hardest hit — but that over time costs could decrease compared with historical fluctuations.

The rise of natural gas will also eliminate some of the cost and reliability concerns, the GAO report said. Cheap natural gas is already replacing coal as a source of electric power, and that alone could push power operators to shut down coal plants, the report said.

This point is also willfully ignored by coal companies. The power industry is transitioning away from coal for reasons that have nothing to do with EPA regs; as we’ve repeatedly noted, the U.S. now uses as much natural gas for power generation as it does coal. Meanwhile, coal is harder to extract, seams are running light and are harder to find — and this makes coal less cheap. The coal industry is buckling.

And on top of all of this, public attitudes are shifting. Coal is the new tobacco, broadly loathed as people learn more about the impacts of burning coal on public health. Oil and gas may be the least popular industry in America according to Gallup, but then Gallup didn’t ask about coal. Since the days of Loretta Lynn, Americans have grown far more concerned about the impacts of coal pollution than the economic health of the coal industry.

Unfortunately for Obama, that industry limps along in states that could go either way in November. So as the crest of the coal wave breaks in 2012, it puts Obama — never a big opponent of coal — in a difficult political position. Just as presidents are held accountable for gas prices and unemployment, two things over which they have only a tiny influence, Obama is being held accountable for massive shifts in the coal economy. Which, in turn, prompts him to be as vocally supportive of the industry as possible, just as he is now being vocally supportive of tapping the strategic oil reserves to drop gas prices. Same worry about voters; same ineffectual response.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney — who once wished death upon the coal plant that was killing his constituents and is now coal’s best friend — stokes the fires of resentment against the president in coal-producing states.

In one sense, Mitt Romney has already won. Two years ago, Dominion Energy announced that the Salem Harbor power plant in Massachusetts will close by 2015. At the time, the company cited the costs of cleaning up the plant under a new ozone regulation from the EPA. That regulation was canned. Meanwhile, Dominion is broadly embracing the switch to natural gas-generated power.

Mitt Romney got his wish: Salem Harbor won’t pollute the great state of Massachusetts. And he got his other, later wish: Barack Obama will be the one to take the blame — despite not really deserving it at all.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!