The Big Coal Question

Journalists catch Obama and Clinton walking a carbon tightrope

Most journalists covering the environmental side of the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have come to the same conclusion: that either of them (and John McCain, too) will be better than George W. Bush. Yet despite the candidates’ green rhetoric, journalists have been unable to “spur” them into a more specific debate on issues like climate change.

Print reporters (more later on the lackluster efforts of broadcasters) have had a tough time getting Clinton or Obama to explain what differentiates their environmental policies. Most have relied on campaign Web sites and platform statements. But some have done better.

Time magazine’s Eric Pooley, for example, was recently able to prompt two of the most meaningful quotes on climate issues in the last couple months, if not the entire race. His article, which appeared in Time’s Environment Issue, argued that the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, which would establish a cap-and-trade system to regulate national greenhouse gas emissions, should be the candidates’ “first big test.” Both Democrats (and McCain) support cap-and-trade, Pooley notes, “But they haven’t hashed it out with one another the way they’ve argued the fine points of, say, health care.”

Why not? The short answer, according to Pooley’s sources, is jobs. All of the presidential hopefuls have trumpeted the prospect of “green jobs,” but that lip service belies a more uncertain economic impact if Liberman-Warner passes. And that’s where Pooley’s golden quotes, contained in one concise paragraph, comes in:

“It’s too complicated to talk about on the stump,” says a Clinton adviser. But the way Clinton and Obama do talk about it makes green gobs sound too easy, like a federal employment program for Keebler elves. “These are real jobs, but it comes across as happy talk,” say United Steelworkers president Leo Girard.

And if that happy talk turned serious, it might not reflect well on the candidates. As a good, matter-of-fact article in The Wall Street Journal recently put it:

The race for the Democratic nomination hinges on a handful of states where coal is still king. That puts Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in a bind: how to attack global warming without threatening an industry that provides half the U.S.’s electricity and more than 80,000 mining jobs.

That was certainly the case that played out in Pennsylvania this week. Two days before the state’s Democratic primary on Tuesday, The Associated Press’s H. Josef Hebert had an excellent account of the carbonaceous tightrope walk:

Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are walking a delicate line as they promise to aggressively tackle global warming while trying to assure voters that they continue to believe in the future of coal …

While increased mechanization has produced a dramatic decline in coal industry employment, the numbers remain substantial. There are 47,000 coal workers in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and 21,000 in Kentucky, according to the National Mining Association. The three states are the country’s biggest coal producers after Wyoming.

Given that situation, Obama and Clinton have been reluctant to put too much stress on cap-and-trade and renewable fuels. “Instead,” Hebert noted in his article, “‘clean coal’ has become the mantra of both candidates. Some environmentalists are not too happy with that.”

But what’s a candidate to do? The pressure from coal interests has been enormous. Weeks before the Pennsylvania primary, the Times Leader, a local paper in Wilkes-Barre published this unique observation:

While the Democratic presidential candidates are out stumping in Pennsylvania, they’re being followed by some interesting vans carrying advocates of an issue that a year ago didn’t need any additional publicity.

Americans for Balanced Energy Choices is an oblique title for a group that admits it’s basically a grassroots lobby for King Coal and related industries, but the group is making a somewhat more direct pitch: All sources are important in the energy arsenal, but in these days of tighter budgets and increasing costs, coal’s the economical choice.

The “grassroots” designation gets thrown around a lot these days by well-funded organizations on both sides of the energy aisle, however, and tailgating campaign buses is not Americans for Balanced Energy Choices’ only tactic, or even its most wide scale. According to a February article from The Associated Press, the group expects to spend around $40 million on television ads this year-double what it spent in 2007. That figure includes $5 million it paid CNN to co-sponsor at least six presidential debates and air other network advertisements.

“Facing a bruising fight over climate change,” wrote AP reporters Matthew Brown and Matt Gouras, “the coal industry is on the political offensive this election year to ensure that no matter who wins in November, so does coal … Despite the string of scrapped or delayed power plant proposals, the wheels are in motion on the industry’s largest domestic expansion in at least two decades. Twenty-two new coal plants are now under construction and dozens more are in the pipeline.”

It seems clear, then, why Obama and Clinton have been reluctant to duke it out over the specifics of their climate and energy plans, or sink too far into the green fold. It’s still too soon to gamble with the coal industry’s support. Fortunately, as evidenced by the articles above, print journalists have been dusting for the sooty fingerprints that mark each campaign. That raises an important question about TV journalists, however, whom the League of Conservation Voters has faulted for not asking enough questions (current count: eight out 3,201) about climate change and energy issues. In the absence of such questioning, is Americans for Balanced Energy Choices’ ad campaign taking the place of reporting? That’s what the TV news viewer sees.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.