Revealing comments on coal from Obama — and even more revealing comments from McCain

The right wing has gone ballistic over a newly leaked tape of Obama talking about the impacts of a mandatory cap on carbon emissions. The leading conservative website, the Drudge Report, had (somewhat surprisingly) downplayed the issue yesterday but now has three “above the fold” links in red:

Palin Unleashes New Attack Against Obama On Coal…Audio: Obama Tells Paper He Will Bankrupt Coal Industry…Official calls comments ‘unbelievable’…

Let’s put aside for the moment how odd it is that this interview from January was leaked Sunday — far too late to have any impact whatsoever on the campaign. Obama’s remarks — and the reaction they have spawned — deserve attention because they tell you a lot about both candidates.

Let’s start with McCain’s amazing reponse in the Washington Post:

“My friends, you know what Senator Obama said about a year ago, he said he had not been a, quote, coal booster,” he said, as the crowd booed. “My friends, I’ve been a coal booster and it’s going to create jobs, and we’re going to export coal to other countries and we are going to create hundreds of thousands of jobs. That’s going to help restore the economy of the great state of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

What a sad journey it has been for John McCain. Once a principled supporter of regulatory action on climate change, now he is the number one cheerleader for increasing the production and consumption of the two most carbon-intensive fossil fuels, coal and oil. No wonder he has progressively backed away from support for action (see “Palin shocker: McCain won’t regulate greenhouse gas emissions”).

In fact, the grand total of US coal mine employment is about 80,000. McCain must be confusing 2008 with the last time the coal industry had hundreds of thousands of jobs — the 1950s. Even the Post felt compelled to add, “In practice, coal exports amount to a tiny fraction the coal produced in the U.S. According to the Energy Information Administration, only 2 percent of overall U.S. coal production was exported in 2007.”

The coal mining industry has become astonishingly productive and has shed several times the number of jobs that any climate regulation would. And that brings me to Obama’s very blunt remarks and why they are much more interesting for what they tell us about his understanding of the impact of serious climate regulations than for any political impact they could have — the whole audiotape is here:

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.

An inartful choice of words by Obama to be sure, but fundamentally his remarks reflect an accurate understanding of the impact — indeed, the goal — of serious climate regulations, if we ever get around to them. The right wing has tried to spin this as Obama saying will “bankrupt the coal industry.”

Ironically, only the coal industry (and its conservative allies) can bankrupt the coal industry, by continuing to stick its head in the ground and not support funding an aggressive effort to see if carbon capture and storage can work (see “Is coal with carbon capture and storage [CCS] a core climate solution?” and “ President Bush dropped the mismanaged ‘NeverGen’ clean coal project”).

Obama certainly understands the importance of seeing whether CCS can be viable, as the interview makes clear:

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.

Can’t argue with that.

From a political perspective, I am puzzled why this got leaked on Sunday, far too late in the campaign to have any impact whatsoever. If the person who had the tape thought it would have an impact — and wanted it to — they should’ve released it a week ago. If they didn’t want to have an impact, why release it now?

In any case, the world has changed dramatically from the 1950s. While the coal companies themselves are rich and profitable and influential, especially in conservative politics, the number of coal jobs has been shrinking at such a rate that I’m not even certain that the coal jobs issue is a serious political winner anymore. Wecertainly won’t find out in this campaign, but there is little doubt that this tape and the issue will resurface when the next administration begins the hard task of hammering out a serious cap and trade bill.

For more thoughts on this, see the Wonk Room.