By Luke Popovich
We don’t yet know who the next president will be, but we do know that whoever succeeds President Barack Obama won’t be crowned with laurels by a grateful nation. Not after this election. This presidential honeymoon could be shorter than my first one.
It’s also a good bet that the issues swirling around coal will continue to be a lightning rod. Of all the issues that divide the two parties this year, few if any have widened the gap further than coal, fossil energy, climate change and their impact on the economy.
In fact, polls show the partisan divide is wider on climate change than on any other issue. In 2001, the gap between Republicans and Democrats on whether climate change is real and human-caused was 17 percentage points. This year, the gap stands at 41 points. That suggests there’ll be meager prospects for bipartisanship in fashioning a new energy policy however the election turns out.
All the more remarkable then that the undisputed winner from the last presidential debate was a coal guy. Ken Bone rocked the house with his question of the candidates, his sartorial style that was more “Ohio coal” than Giorgio Armani, and a Twitter following to rival the Kardashians. Great, another guy who won’t take my calls.
Anyway, more on the new president’s policies for coal after we know the winner. For now, we face the legacy that this president will leave behind.
Chief among them will be an historic shift away from an “all of the above” energy policy that enjoyed bipartisan support and broad public favor throughout the entire post-war period. On this “inclusive” view, it was understood that a growing and diversified economy needs the blessings of abundant and affordable energy from all sources with supply largely regulated by the marketplace, not the White House. The U.S. industry, and the jobs it provided, flourished in no small part due to reliable and cheap coal; a society built on the automobile needed plentiful oil and low energy taxes to minimize our reliance on OPEC’s cartel.
The Obama administration has abandoned this time-tested policy in order to control carbon emissions. Surprisingly little public discussion has weighed the consequences of this historic shift, one that has already wreaked havoc on the coal industry and may soon keep natural gas “in the ground” too. One reason is because climate change has sucked all the air out of the room, suffocating serious debate about the risks that may come from addressing it — a less diverse, more highly leveraged energy supply and significantly higher prices. The feeling grows of a country seized by collective amnesia that ignores the domestic energy crisis of the ‘70s, the struggles today of Germany and other European Union countries from their rapid transition away from fossil energy, and the energy needs of emerging economies in Africa and Asia. Are we Americans bold, or just foolhardy?
Whether the next president cleaves to Obama’s energy path or departs from it, he or she is unlikely to enjoy any sweeping mandate from an electorate as divided as it has ever been. Congress will reflect this deep division even if the White House does not. Some regulations on coal, the current moratorium on federal coal leases and the administration’s misguided Stream Protection Rule, may hang in the balance.
The partisan divide may also leave an outsized role for the judiciary. Courts could throw out the Clean Power Plan next year — bowing to NMA’s view that the regulation is unlawful. A favorable ruling could return us to square one and, importantly, return undisputed sovereignty over power supply to the states. From Carson City, Nevada, to Springfield, Illinois, state capitals usually value measured progress and common sense over vaulting ambitions fueled by ideological fervor.
Meanwhile, as this merciless presidential campaign grinds to its end, simply throwing our newspaper at the TV won’t help. We need to vote. NMA’s Mine the Vote website can help you decide on candidates if you’re undecided.
Yes, I do recall Will Rogers’ advice, “Don’t vote, it just encourages ‘em.” But Rogers never worked for the coal industry.
Luke Popovich is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.