Right now, energy geeks around the country are debating the economic and political consequences of high gasoline prices, but here’s one thing you can say for sure: Pain at the pump is inspiring President Obama to make some sharp speeches about energy. In Maryland yesterday, he confronted the issue of soaring gas prices head-on, slamming Republicans for "talking down new sources of energy" and aptly comparing fossil fuel-loving Solyndra-bashers to "founding members of the Flat Earth Society."
I particularly liked the distinction he drew yesterday between energy sources of the past and those of the future: "We can't have an energy strategy for the last century that traps us in the past. We need an energy strategy for the future – an all-of-the-above strategy for the 21st Century that develops every source of American-made energy. Yes, develop as much oil and gas as we can, but also develop wind power and solar power and biofuels."
The most surprising thing about the speech was what Obama didn’t say: "coal." There were no odes to "clean coal," no false promises about the number of jobs coal mining will provide in the future, no bullshit about how America needs coal to keep the lights on. Nor did the president mention coal in any of his riffs about energy in the recent State of the Union speech, or in his remarks about energy in North Carolina a few weeks ago when he promised to strip the fossil fuel industry of $4 billion in subsidies.
In the world of energy politics, the sudden vanishing of the word "coal" is a remarkable and unprecedented event.
As anyone who is reading this surely knows, there is no energy source that is more emblematic of the past than coal. We still burn nearly a billion tons of it a year in America, almost all of it to generate electricity. But it is a dirty, inefficient, planet-cooking fuel whose supporters have pushed into the 21st Century with slick ads for "clean coal," an army of high-powered lobbyists, and big checks for politicians. And until recently, it’s worked. The secret of Big Coal’s success has always been its political power. In the regions where it is mined and burned, coal mining companies – as well as the railroads that haul it and the power companies that burn it – are deeply wired into state and local governments. They have worked long and hard to convince the hacks in city halls and state houses that their economic future depends on burning more and more coal, and that any shift away from coal, or, worse, any crackdown on environmental regulations, will bring about not just economic chaos, but blackouts.
Nowhere has the political power of coal been more obvious than in presidential campaigns. The conventional wisdom has always been that if you want a seat in the Oval Office, you need Big Coal states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. And to win them, you need to buy into the myth that we are going to power the 21st Century pretty much the same way we powered the 19th. In the 2008 campaign, Obama famously sucked up to the industry by frequently touting "clean coal." "This is the United States of America," he told the crowd at one campaign stop. "You can’t tell me that if we can put a man on the moon in ten years, you can’t tell me we can’t figure out a way to burn coal that we mine right here in the United State of America and make it work."
So as the 2012 campaign begins, why has the the word "coal" disappeared from the president’s speeches?
One explanation, of course, is that coal is simply too controversial, and the president simply wants to pretend it does not exist. If you talk about coal, then you have to talk about air pollution, mountaintop-removal mining, and carbon emissions – all issues that Obama has refused to take strong action on, despite the advice of his own scientists.
But another explanation may be that coal is dying in America, and everyone knows it. In the largest sense, it’s being killed off by technological progress and the rising awareness of the economic and environmental benefits of renewable energy. Even the biggest coal boosters have long admitted that coal is a dying industry – the fight has always been over how fast and how hard the industry will fall.
The real dagger in coal’s heart is natural gas – more accurately, cheap natural gas from "unconventional" sources like shale and other porous rocks. Thanks to new technologies like horizontal drilling and fracking, we are suddenly awash in gas, and prices are lower than they’ve been in decade. Drilling and fracking is its own kind of nightmare, but for better or worse, one incontestable consequence of cheap gas is that it has driven many electricity generators to turn off the coal plants and fire up the natural gas generators instead.
The decline in the demand for coal is devastating and irreversible. As the Wall Street Journal reported this week, electricity generated from coal is down by 5.4 percent this year. Another 14 percent might lost by the end of the year as more power producers switch to natural gas. In Appalachia, mines are closing, workers are being laid off. The U.S. Department of Energy projects that in a little more than three years, the amount of coal mined in Appalachia will be just half what it was in 2008, the last time Obama was on the campaign trail.
But it’s not just economics. Cheap natural gas also emasculates Big Coal politically. The regions that hold the biggest reserves of shale gas, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania and Texas, also happen to be Big Coal states. And while coal is on the decline, gas is booming (for the moment, anyway – we’ll see how long it lasts). So local and state politicians in search of economic salvation and campaign contributions can suck up to the gas industry now – and look progressive while they’re doing it. This is even more true for Obama. The idea of "clean coal" has been so widely debunked and discredited that he can’t possibly talk it up during this campaign without destroying his clean-energy cred. In fact, the word "coal" is toxic to many of the voters Obama is trying to court, while natural gas, despite the many troubles with fracking, is seen as cleaner, more plentiful, more efficient. In this sense, candidates will likely talk about natural gas in 2012 the way, four years ago, they harped on "clean coal" – only too happy to be able to tout fossil fuel without looking like a troglodyte.
So the word "coal" may be absent from Obama’s energy speeches for a very good reason: because he and his advisors have decided they don’t need Big Coal anymore to win. If it’s true, this would mark an epic shift in energy politics in America, and one that could turn out to be far more important in the long run than whether or not America can tolerate $5-a-gallon gasoline.