CHARLESTON – At least one state coal industry leader said he was shocked by comments Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama made earlier this year concerning his plan to aggressively charge polluters for carbon and greenhouse gas emissions.
"What I've said is that we would put a cap and trade system in place that is as aggressive, if not more aggressive, than anybody else's out there," Obama said in a Jan. 17 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle that was made public today on the Web site newsbusters.org, which calls itself "the leader in documenting, exposing and neutralizing liberal media bias." The story later was linked on The Drudge Report.
An audio excerpt from the interview can be found at YouTube.
"I was the first to call for a 100 percent auction on the cap and trade system, which means that every unit of carbon or greenhouse gases emitted would be charged to the polluter," Obama continued. "That will create a market in which whatever technologies are out there that are being presented, whatever power plants that are being built, that they would have to meet the rigors of that market and the ratcheted down caps that are being placed, 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."
Calls and e-mails to West Virginia Obama campaign officials seeking a response for this story were not returned. But according to ABC News, an Obama spokesperson said the comments were taken out of context.
"The line they pulled out is in the context of cap and trade program," the spokesperson said. "The point Obama is making is that we need to transition from coal burning power plants built with old technology to plants built with advanced technologies -- and that is exactly the action that will be incentivized under a cap and trade program."
A spokeswoman for the Obama campaign in West Virginia replied to The Record's requests for comment with a quote from Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland about McCain's energy plan.
"After John McCain said he'd like to 'transition away from coal entirely,' his campaign is hardly in a position to criticize a coal state Senator like Barack Obama who has outlined a $150 billion investment in clean coal and other technologies to create jobs and build a new energy economy," Strickland said. "The truth is, John McCain and Sarah Palin can't name a single thing they'd do differently on the economy than George Bush, so all they have to offer is last minute, desperate distortions. Hardworking families don't need more Washington-style political attacks, they need a President who will create jobs and stand up for the middle class – and that's Barack Obama."
According to the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, the coal industry provides about 40,000 direct jobs in the state, including those for miners, mine contractors, coal preparation plant employees and mine supply company workers.
West Virginia is the second largest coal-producing state in the country behind Wyoming and accounts for about 15 percent of all coal production in the United States. The Mountain State leads the nation in underground coal production and leads the nation in coal exports with over 50 million tons shipped to 23 countries. West Virginia accounts for about half of U.S. coal exports.
In addition, the coal industry pays about $70 million in property taxes in the state annually, and the Coal Severance Tax adds about $214 million into West Virginia's economy. The coal industry payroll in the state is nearly $2 billion per year, and coal is responsible for more than $3.5 billion annually in the gross state product.
"The only thing I've said with respect to coal, I haven't been some coal booster," Obama said in the San Francisco Chronicle interview. "What I have said is that for us to take coal off the table as an ideological matter as opposed to saying if technology allows us to use coal in a clean way, we should pursue it."
The senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association called Obama's comments "unbelievable."
"His comments are unfortunate," Chris Hamilton said Sunday, "and really reflect a very uninformed voice and perspective to coal specifically and energy generally."
Hamilton noted other times Obama and vice presidential candidate Joe Biden have made seemingly anti-coal statements.
"In Ohio recently, when Joe Biden said 'not here' about building coal-fired power plants -- this is exactly what will happen," Hamilton said. "Financing won't be directed here. It will all go aboard for plants elsewhere in the world. The United Sates is importing more coal today from Indonesia, South Africa and Colombia than we ever have.
"If we're going to create a situation where coal-fired power plants are at that much of a disadvantage, there will be new ones built. But as Biden said, just not here."
Republican presidential candidate John McCain's state director said Obama's statements are troubling, especially for West Virginians.
"I think this clearly shows the attitude the Obama-Biden ticket has toward coal," Ben Beakes said Sunday. "Rhetoric is cheap, but behind closed doors what they tell their supporters – that's what we have to take as gospel.
"They're definitely not friends of coal."
Beakes noted other examples of Obama and Biden making seemingly anti-coal statements, such as in February when Obama said he'd like to tax "dirty energy" such as coal and natural gas.
"And their cohorts in Congress make similar statements," Beakes said. "(Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid (D-Nevada) said this summer that 'coal makes us sick.'
"This is an attitude and view that, to me, shows their hatred of coal. And therefore, their view would cost West Virginians thousands upon thousands of jobs."
Beakes touted McCain's view toward coal.
"John McCain has embraced coal," Beakes said. "He doesn't agree with everything in the coal industry, but his view of coal is positive. He will make it part of his energy policy. He's met with leaders in the coal industry and let them know that. He's sought advice from coal industry leaders.
"McCain understands that coal supports about 49 percent of our electricity in this country. He'll continue to make coal important. He wants to reduce our foreign dependency on oil."
Hamilton also said the Obama campaign needs to find varied sources for coal and energy advice.
"If they're victorious Tuesday, they'd better go to someone other than Al Gore on energy and environmental matters," he said. "They've tipped the balance way -– unnecessarily so -– toward protecting the environment."