Hey, look. The Romney campaign has another ad attacking President Obama for the “War on Coal.”

On the plus side, this ad doesn’t feature any forced labor. On the minus side, basically everything else is wrong.

The argument presented is as follows:

  • Obama has an ad — this ad — noting that Romney once suggested coal plants kill people. That ad is therefore an “attack ad.”
  • Obama once said that people could build coal plants, but “it would bankrupt them.”
  • Obama has a “War on Coal,” while we “lose jobs to China.”
  • Your job is in danger.
  • Mitt Romney approves this message.

Setting aside the first and the last points, let’s assess the ad’s accuracy. Spoiler: It does poorly.

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Obama: “It would bankrupt them”
The president did say this, in a 2008 endorsement interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s the video. The question starts at 25:12.

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He’s asked, “How are you going to square your support for coal with the need to fight global warming?” At a progressive paper in the Bay Area, he’s asked the question so many have asked since: how does advocating coal help fight global warming.

Obama responds:

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This notion of “no coal” I think is an illusion. 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-powered plant once a week. So what have to do then is figure out how can we use coal without emitting greenhouse gasses and carbon. …

What I’ve said is that we would put a cap-and-trade system in place that is as aggressive if not more aggressive than anyone else’s out there. I was the first to call for 100 percent auction which means that every unit of carbon or greenhouse gasses would be charged to the polluter. … [T]hey’ll have to meet the rigors of that market and the ratcheted-down caps that are imposed every year. So if someone wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can. It’s just that it will bankrupt them, because they’re gonna be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted. That can also generate billions of dollars that we can invest in solar, wind, biodiesel, and other alternative energy approaches.

A few things to note. Obama admits supporting coal; his answer is predicated on it. Further, the out-of-context quote in the ad — so out of context that you can hear that Obama hasn’t yet finished his sentence — is predicated on a cap-and-trade system that doesn’t exist. It was proposed, passed the House, and died in the Senate. So absolutely zero coal plants have “gone bankrupt” due to the plan that Obama hoped to put into place.

Yes, he wanted to raise the cost of coal. But he didn’t.

There’s a “War on Coal.” On an unrelated note, jobs are going to China
Jobs are going to China. That’s true. But there’s no connection to the “War on Coal.” (Listen to the ad carefully. That “while” is a big one.)

The funny thing is that Obama is sending something to China: coal. A recent report demonstrated the extent to which American coal is increasingly being sent abroad. Another recent story suggested that the amount of coal America is sending to Europe is driving up that continent’s carbon emissions. Coal miners aren’t being laid off while coal miners are hired in China. If anything, China is keeping coal mines busy.

But here’s the kicker. As we’ve said literally 45 trillion times a day for the past seven months, it is not regulation, not a nonexistent cap-and-trade bill that’s dooming coal. It’s natural gas and the market.

Yesterday, the Energy Information Administration released new data about coal use in the United States. Here’s Sightline.org on “Coal’s Unprecedented Collapse.”

The US Energy Information Administration released new numbers today, with shocking news for the coal industry: the nation’s electric utilities used 18 percent less coal in the first half of 2012 than they did in 2011, and 27 percent less than they did during the peak year, 2008.

In short, big coal companies are in the middle of a free-fall, and nobody’s sure when they’ll hit bottom. …

Image courtesy of Sightline.

In all my years of examining economic and environmental trends, I’ve never seen anything like this. Gasoline consumption might shift by a few percentage points per year at most. Coal consumption trends had been very much of that ilk: consumption would shift slowly, but with a long-term trend towards steady growth.

So a drop of this magnitude is a proverbial “black swan”—an unforeseeable event with dramatic, world-changing consequences.

The graph basically says everything. As utility use of natural gas spikes, use of coal has plummeted. Part of the reason the utilities have switched is to avoid having to adapt pollution controls for scrubbing coal smoke. But the primary reason is cost. Natural gas is a much smarter bet in the marketplace. It’s cheaper and the massive fracking boom promises to keep it that way for a while to come.

Which jibes with how Obama closed his remarks to the Chronicle. “The point is,” he said, “if we set rigorous standards for the allowable emissions, then we can allow the market to determine, and technology and entrepreneurs to pursue, what’s the best approach to take.” That’s what the utilities are doing. So, miners?

“Your job is in danger”?

Only because the domestic market for coal is crumbling.

Politics is the art of claiming undue responsibility for the positive and avoiding even-deserved blame for the negative. The Romney campaign and the coal industry are trying to pin the tanking coal industry on Obama instead of on their own failure to address pollution and their own reliance on an outdated, end-of-lifecycle fuel source. This ad will soon be an historical curiosity, like an ad from the Woodrow Wilson for President campaign arguing that Taft had killed the buggy whip industry.

But you can’t blame a guy for trying.