March 16, 2016

An Unusual Campaign Promise: Unemployment

In this raucous 2016 presidential campaign, the amount of press attention devoted to a candidate’s actual policy ideas has had a difficult time breaking through the day-to-day campaign circus.

But even by these high (or low, if you prefer) standards, Secretary Hillary Clinton’s comments on coal earlier this week should be headline news. At a CNN Democratic town hall on Sunday evening, Clinton declared her open hostility toward the resource that helped electrify a nation and now securely delivers about 40 percent of America’s electricity needs:

“I’m the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity — using clean, renewable energy as the key — into coal country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal companies and coal miners out of business,” Clinton said.

It was a striking moment of candor that will not soon be forgotten. Whatever one thinks of coal, that a presidential candidate would openly promise to use the power of government to eliminate an entire economic sector and take jobs away from some of the country’s hardest working people is remarkable. Imagine a candidate for elected office promising to take away jobs from auto workers, farmers, nurses, or any other honest occupation. It is simply beyond comprehension, isn’t it? Why, then, are coal jobs attacked without batting an eye?

Presumably, Mrs. Clinton finds this line of attack acceptable because she believes coal is “dirty” and unpopular.  The truth is a bit different. The coal plants of today are not those of our parents and grandparents. They are efficient, affordable, and cleaner than ever. As data from the Department of Energy and EPA show, since 1970, emissions from coal have been reduced 90 percent while its use has more than doubled.

Many of these advancements are due to responsible regulations that have protected the environment and public health and advanced cleaner energy technologies. This has been a shared policy goal for decades, and should remain so.

But instead of building on these successes, Mrs. Clinton’s statement is indicative of a troubling new direction in environmental policy: Rather than continuing to make energy from fossil fuels cleaner so we can continue to use and benefit from them, a growing sentiment is aimed at eliminating their use entirely. This “keep it in the ground” energy policy is inconsistent with the spirit and letter of our environmental laws, and it warrants greater attention.

The morning after the town hall, Mrs. Clinton issued the following clarifying statement in response to the almost immediate and justifiable backlash to her comments from all sides. But those looking for solace in this attempted mulligan will be disappointed. The statement does not disavow the original comments, and instead simply explains that the “transition” away from coal (“i.e. putting coal companies and coal miners out of business”) will depend on natural gas and nuclear, and will be accompanied by a list of new and existing programs to help take the sting out of losing your job.

This begs the question: If coal is affordable, clean, reliable, and secure, why take away those jobs in the first place?