Media's Latest “War On Coal” Story Lacks Context

Source: Harvard Gazette (Kris Snibbe)

Media outlets have pounced on a quote from one member of a science advisory panel to once again claim a White House “war on coal,” but they are missing crucial context about President Barack Obama's expected plan, which sets aside money for the development of so-called “clean coal” technology in addition to proposing necessary regulations on the pollution that coal-fired power plants currently emit.

Tuesday, The New York Times published a quote from Harvard University professor Daniel P. Schrag, a member of the president's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, in anticipation of the Obama administration's announcement of measures to reduce carbon emissions and prepare for the impacts of climate change:

“Everybody is waiting for action,” he said. “The one thing the president really needs to do now is to begin the process of shutting down the conventional coal plants. Politically, the White House is hesitant to say they're having a war on coal. On the other hand, a war on coal is exactly what's needed.”

The Washington Post singled out the remarks in a post titled “Obama science adviser calls for 'war on coal.” However, Schrag is not Obama's primary science adviser -- he is simply one of 18 advisors in a group that includes current and former executives from Microsoft, Google and tech conglomerate Honeywell, Inc. Additionally, as the Post noted, “he is not closely involved in setting regulatory policy for the White House.”

Right-wing outlets immediately began publicizing the remarks, suggesting they are a sign of President Obama's true motives, with The Washington Free Beacon claiming the quote shows that the president's plan “is explicitly aimed at attacking the coal industry.” Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin followed up by asking “Is Obama waging a 'war on coal?' and responding that ”[t]o a large extent, the answer is yes."

However, Schrag's remark is not representative of President Obama's record as The Columbia Journalism Review and others have previously pointed out. Schrag responded to an email inquiry from Media Matters that he believes “there is nothing wrong with coal if technology is used to remove CO2 emissions and other harmful pollutants” (emphasis added):

The quote was slightly out of context. I was asked about the question of a war on coal, and I explain that shutting down conventional coal plants is a critical step in moving towards a low-carbon economy. But the phrase “war on coal” is really inappropriate and I shouldn't have used it - simply because it is not the coal that is the problem, but the emissions from coal, and what they do to our health, the health of our children, and of course the climate. So there is nothing wrong with coal if technology is used to remove CO2 emissions and other harmful pollutants. But conventional coal, that is harming our children and changing the climate system should have no place in our society.

Indeed, the President is dedicating $8 billion to research and development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to encourage the development of so-called “clean coal” as part of his climate action plan:

The President is also ramping up support for carbon and capture storage (CCS) [sic] technology, which can be fitted to fossil fuel plants to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, with $8 billion available from the federal budget for research and development.

This is in addition to the $3.4 billion that the 2009 federal stimulus bill devoted to CCS.

The President's climate action plan is also expected to include regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency on carbon pollution from power plants, which will impact coal plants, as they currently cause more damage to the climate than any other power source. But while the media has repeatedly portrayed EPA rules as a “war on coal,” such political rhetoric ignores natural gas' role in displacing coal and the necessity of long-overdue Clean Air Act regulations to protect Americans' health and welfare.