Both presidential candidates, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) have called for a mandatory cap on carbon emissions in the United States. Coal-fired power plants, which produce about 49 percent of U.S. electricity, account for 83 percent of power-sector emissions. Because of the global warming footprint, the cheapness of coal-fired electricity is illusory. Under a cap-and-trade system, the cost of those emissions — now a market externality — would have a dollar cost. In a January 2008 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Obama used blunt language to describe how a cap and trade system would change the future of the power sector:
That will create a market in which whatever technologies are out there that are being presented, whatever power plants are being built, they would have to meet the rigors of that market and the ratcheted-down caps that are imposed every year. 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 right wing has gone insane over these remarks, falsely claiming that Obama said he “will bankrupt the coal industry.” This false claim is the headline of a Newsbusters story — the same right-wing front group that falsely attacked Al Gore using doctored audio clips. This time, the piece is based on an anonymous YouTube video. After being pumped by a top link on the Drudge Report, the right-wing — including the Weekly Standard, Michelle Malkin, and Power Line — went wild and repeated the lie that Obama talked about “bankrupting” the “coal industry.”
In reality, Obama’s statements, while blunt, are neither revelatory nor controversial. At a September 15 townhall meeting in Orlando, FL, McCain warned against building new coal plants:
We’re going to build new plants that generate energy, my friends, we’re going to build them. We’ve got to. There’s an increased demand for it. And it seems to me, it’s going to be coal, which I believe will increase greenhouse gas emissions dramatically, or it’s going to be nuclear, or it’s going to be clean coal technology.
In the San Francisco Chronicle interview , Obama similarly stated that the future of power involves coal:
But this notion of no coal, I think, is an illusion. Because the fact of the matter is, is that right now we are getting a lot of our energy from coal. And China is building a coal-powered plant once a week. So what we have to do then is figure out how can we use coal without emitting greenhouse gases and carbon. And how can we sequester that carbon and capture it. If we can’t, then we’re gonna still be working on alternatives.
Under either candidate’s cap and trade program, constructing new coal plants that do not employ “clean coal technology” — that is, carbon capture and sequestration technology — would raise costs “dramatically.” Independent analysts have found that new coal plants would “create significant financial risks for shareholders and ratepayers” because of the likely cost of their greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, energy providers will have a financial incentive to pursue alternative energy and energy efficiency. McCain explained the market signal of a cap and trade program in his May 12 speech on climate change:
And the same approach that brought a decline in sulfur dioxide emissions can have an equally dramatic and permanent effect on carbon emissions. Instantly, automakers, coal companies, power plants, and every other enterprise in America would have an incentive to reduce carbon emissions, because when they go under those limits they can sell the balance of permitted emissions for cash. As never before, the market would reward any person or company that seeks to invent, improve, or acquire alternatives to carbon-based energy. . . A cap-and-trade policy will send a signal that will be heard and welcomed all across the American economy. Those who want clean coal technology, more wind and solar, nuclear power, biomass and bio-fuels will have their opportunity through a new market that rewards those and other innovations in clean energy.
McCain emphasized who the winners under a carbon cap-and-trade system are: “clean coal technology, more wind and solar, nuclear power, biomass and bio-fuels.” The market “incentive,” “reward,” or “signal” is a euphemism that the winners will make money because the losers will pay more. And the losers, above all, are traditional coal plants — no matter who is elected president.
UPDATE: Ed Driscoll calls Obama’s quotes a “blockbuster story,” the Corner’s Mark Steyn hyperventilates that this was a “****-me story,” and Hugh Hewitt’s Bill Dyer calls it “madness masquerading as policy.” This video from Jed Lewison puts matters into perspective: