By Luke Popovich
President Barack Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, offered a startlingly candid admission recently. He said it’s “unrealistic” to completely halt fossil fuel extraction in the United States.
That may not sound like such a remarkable statement; most of us know we rely on fossil fuels to power everything from cars to electrical plants. But it flies in the face of recent calls by environmental activists to halt all domestic oil, gas and coal production. This “keep it in the ground” movement has gained momentum of late, echoing in the halls of the Democratic Convention and among some in the Obama administration.
The problem with this bumper sticker energy policy is that it fails to recognize the potential damage it could do to the U.S. economy.
Among fossil fuels, coal is the first target for environmental activists. Despite the widespread use of scrubbers and high-tech equipment to clean and trap emissions from coal-fired power plants, green activists like to paint coal as an archaic power source. It’s an easy sell to a general public unaware that new coal-based power plants are up to 90% cleaner than the older plants they replaced. And the “keep it in the ground” message dovetails nicely with President Obama’s decision to kill coal, rather than invest in the carbon capture systems that would allow coal and other fossil fuels to remain cheap, plentiful, and low carbon.
While President Obama is running fast and furious with this policy — determined to lock up coal for good before his term runs out — he may well spark an electoral backlash at the same time. As of August, about 17 states were up for grabs in the fall election, and 13 of them rely on coal for up to half of their electric power. Those 13 swing states represent a whopping 149 electoral votes — more than half the number needed on the road to the White House.
So, the question come November could be whether or not voters in these coal-dependent states are willing to happily surrender their durable, cheap electricity and the jobs that go with it.
They may not. Even outside coal states, overall more than four in 10 voters say their electricity prices are already high, and “cost” is far and away their primary concern when thinking about energy issues. So no surprise to learn that nearly six in 10 nationwide favor using coal, not keeping it in the ground. Now turn to the Big 13 coal states, where power plants generate some of the lowest electricity prices in the nation and support roughly 370,000 jobs and $90 billion in economic activity. Any candidate who campaigns there on the promise to kill off the coal industry may as well sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” in a mosque.
Point being, if coal becomes a pocketbook issue for voters this fall, “keeping coal in the ground” may not be a winning message for political candidates any more than it is a practical energy policy for the country.
Official Washington, with the antifossil fuel drumbeat growing louder, seems to have forgotten this. President Obama ignores coal’s value to the nation, let alone to the battleground states. Already, he has shut down 200 coal plants, and will likely close another 46 of them soon. Already, energy experts warn of the grid’s increasing vulnerability to power shortages.
Candidates on the campaign trail surely realize that Americans are struggling right now. The continued hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs isn’t helping things. A subsequent hit to coal and affordable power will knock Americans hard in the wallet.
Come November, coal may well be as potent a political issue as it is an important energy source.
Luke Popovich is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.