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High Presidential Stakes Causes Coal Rhetoric to Heat Up

The road to an energy policy may be blocked by politics — the presidential race in which the stakes are so high that candidates’ comments are contorted to suit the needs of the would-be officeholders or the causes they support. But does Hillary Clinton deserve scrutiny for her remarks that coal will get short shrift in an evolving energy economy?

At a recent town hall, she said that the Obama administration’s clean energy plan to reduce carbon emissions would shut down a lot of coal plants, and put plenty of coal miners on the street. On the surface, that’s a harsh statement. And taken by itself — which is what happened — it could look pretty bad.

But to be clear, Clinton’s whole statement went on to say that coal’s troubles are the logical result of switching to cleaner burning fuels. As such, she insists that public policy should support the redevelopment of coal communities and the retraining of their workforces. In fact, her position is to plow $30 billion toward such an effort.

That’s not how it played out, however. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity issued a position paper that collected several of the statements made by current and former Obama officials, which also includes EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

Here’s a portion of that paper:

Secretary Hillary Clinton, at a CNN Town Hall Debate in Ohio:

 “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”

In a hearing on Capitol Hill that covered EPA’s 2017 budget request, Administrator McCarthy was asked about the job-killing Power Plan, and seems to not understand just how the plan is designed to work, for it clearly targets coal:

 […] McCarthy told the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies that the Obama administration’s plan was reasonable, cost-effective and legally sound. And, she added, it was not designed to eliminate coal from the mix.

 “We are not looking to preclude coal from being a significant part of the energy system,” she testified. “Indeed, we project it will continue to be.” […]

As the country — indeed the world — transition to cleaner burning fuels, it is understandable that the industries that come up short would fight for their economic lives. But the developed world is on board to cut greenhouse gases, while the developing world is taking gradual steps. The aim of the recently-signed COP21 agreement in Paris is to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius by mid-Century.

Moreover, this trend is about far more than federal regulatory policies. It is about market forces, starting with consumer demand that is enabled by technologies that is facilitated by public policies.

Consider: Despite falling oil and natural gas prices — and dirt cheap coal prices too — wind and solar investments in 2015 accelerated twice as fast. According to a Bloomberg report, renewables are beating fossil fuels 2 to 1, winning nearly $300 billion in investment compared to about $150 billion. The report acknowledges that government subsidies are a huge help but quickly adds that economies of scale are the real driver and they have pushed down solar prices to record lows.

Ten years ago, coal provided more than half of the nation’s electricity. Today, that figure is at 34 percent and will likely fall to 30 percent. It’s market share is getting taken mostly by natural gas but also by wind and solar energy. The result is that more than two dozen coal developers have declared bankruptcy, including Peabody Energy that just declared Chapter 11 today. 

“I firmly believe that if you spent your life keeping the lights on for our country, we can’t leave you in the dark,” Clinton said in a statement, trying to clear up her earlier remarks.

“We need to support our coal miners, their families, and their communities,” Clinton added. “Coal will remain a part of the energy mix for years to come, and we have a shared responsibility to ensure that coal communities receive the benefits they have earned — and can build the future they deserve.”

No doubt: the “war on coal” rhetoric will heat up even more after the summer conventions. And while such talk is likely to play in coal country, it is unlikely to carry much sway across the rest of the nation and especially among many corporations where the new energy revolution is already well underway.

Ken Silverstein is editor-in-chief of Business Sector Media, publisher of Environmental Leader and Energy Manager Today.

*Don’t miss our Environmental Leader 2016 Conference  in June. 

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