Opinion: Obama might ‘bankrupt’ coal, but so would McCain


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We get a lot of press releases here at the Opinion Manufacturing Division that pass without comment, but today’s missive from the Western Business Roundtable is such a masterpiece of obfuscation that it cries out to be posted here, especially because it repeats similar baseless accusations against Barack Obama that were raised today by vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Here are the first two paragraphs of the release:

A bipartisan coalition of business leaders is calling on governors, state legislators and members of Congress to publicly express their opposition before tomorrow’s election to proposals to ‘bankrupt’ the U.S. coal industry and threaten to put out of work several hundred thousand Americans who work in coal-related industries. The call was issued by the Western Business Roundtable following news reports that Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama intends to make it so costly to build advanced clean coal power plants with carbon capture and sequestration that it will ‘bankrupt’ any company that tries to do so.


Well, no. The ‘news reports’ refer to tapes that appeared Sunday on YouTube, which were excerpted from a discussion held by Obama with the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board in January. Here’s what Obama said that has raised the ire of both Palin and the Western Business Roundtable:

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 anybody else’s out there. I was the first to call for a 100% auction on the cap and trade system, which means that every unit of carbon or greenhouse gases emitted would be charged to the polluter.... So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can; it’s just that it will bankrupt them because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted. That will also generate billions of dollars that we can invest in solar, wind, biodiesel and other alternative energy approaches. The only thing I’ve said with respect to coal, I haven’t been some coal booster. What I have said is that for us to take coal off the table as an ideological matter, as opposed to saying if technology allows us to use coal in a clean way, we should pursue it.

Note carefully what Obama is saying here: He wants a cap-and-trade program that would set a price for greenhouse-gas emissions. That would make it prohibitively expensive to build new conventional coal plants, because they emit vast amounts of carbon. Yet that’s not the way the Business Roundtable, a marketing organization for a coalition of Western CEOs, puts it. Its release says Obama’s proposal would make it impossible to build ‘advanced clean coal power plants with carbon capture and sequestration.’ Actually, if the technology to capture and bury carbon emissions from coal plants existed (it’s still under study, and may never be commercially viable), such a plant would emit only trace amounts of carbon, and thus be perfectly viable under Obama’s cap-and-trade scheme.

This is why business groups get a bad name for trying to ‘greenwash’ environmentally destructive projects: The roundtable clearly objects to Obama’s stance on dirty, conventional coal, but in order to look as if it cares about the environment, it’s pretending that Obama actually opposes carbon-capture technology, which he has repeatedly backed (that’s what Obama meant when he said ‘if technology allows us to use coal in a clean way, we should pursue it’).

The Business Roundtable still could take a few pointers on Doublespeak, though, from the master: Palin. In a campaign appearance in Ohio, Palin brought up the same YouTube tape to blast Obama’s stance on coal.

He said that, sure, if the industry wants to build new coal-fired plants, then they can go ahead and try. . . but they can do it only in a way that will bankrupt the coal industry, and he’s comfortable letting that happen.


What Palin neglected to mention is that the guy she’s running with, John McCain, favors a cap-and-trade program very similar to Obama’s, which would have the exact same impact on conventional coal plants. No matter who wins, the coal industry is going to be in trouble. Maybe after the election we can all stop pretending otherwise.

* Photo by Charlie Riedel / AP