What If the Energy Isn't "Green"?

Austin Hill

12/26/2010 12:01:00 AM - Austin Hill

It’s an extraordinary thing when an American President says he wants to “bankrupt” an American industry. And while it’s difficult to know the implications of such a thing – we may be in the process of finding out.

Back in January of 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama sat for an interview with the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. In that discussion, our future President was quizzed aggressively about his “green energy” agenda, and how he would usher in an era of “green jobs.” He was also asked how, as President, he would curtail the manufacture, sale, and consumption of more traditional energy forms that are regarded as environmentally hazardous.

Responding to these questions, a fatigued and hoarse-voiced Senator Obama stated, in part:

“Let me describe my overall policy. What I’ve said is that we would put a cap and trade system in to place that is as aggressive, if not more aggressive, than anybody else’s out there. I was the first to call for a 100% auction on the cap and trade system, which means that every unit of carbon or greenhouse gasses that is emitted would be charged to the polluter. That will create a market in which whatever technologies 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 proposed every year. So if somebody wants to build a coal power plant, they can, it’s just that it will bankrupt them because they’re gonna be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted…”

From there, Mr. Obama went on to further explain that the revenues generated by “charging polluters” for their emissions, would be utilized to create wind and solar power plants. Thus, the candidate reasoned, America would begin a new era of “clean energy.”

For a variety of different reasons, these were some extraordinary remarks from a presidential candidate. For one, they presupposed that things always go according to plans, when the government is running the show. Take money away from the coal industry and give it to the “solar” and “wind” industries , so Mr. Obama reasoned, and everything would be fine – his idyllic vision of “green energy” would necessarily come to pass, simply because he said so. History shows that governmental endeavors are never this simplistic (even the fairly recent history of our government’s handling of the Gulf oil spill and Hurricane Katrina demonstrate this), but politicians of Mr. Obama’s ilk don’t like to be bound by the lessons of history.

The candidate’s remarks were also extraordinary for their callousness. People like Barack Obama who lack an adequate understanding of free market economics, often fail to understand the human dimensions of economic activity. They envision some sort of arbitrarily defined “collective good” in their policies – in this case it was Obama’s dream of “clean energy” – but they fail to understand that unless one first seeks to ensure the wellbeing of human individuals, then there will never be any “collective” wellbeing at all.

In the process, this dangerous kind of thinking reduces economic decision making down to only considering inanimate things – in this case for Mr. Obama, it was all about “coal,” “wind,” “pollution” and “dollars” -while the actual lives of people employed in the coal industry weren’t even considered.

Yet Mr. Obama’s remarks, in as much as he confidently stated that his policies would “bankrupt” the coal industry, did have real implications for real individual human lives. Why would anyone – least of all a future President of the United States – want to “bankrupt” an industry, and put people out of work? One would have thought that these remarks may have had struck a note of concern for voters in coal producing states like Pennsylvania, Colorado, Indiana or Ohio.

But now, less than two years into his presidency, some real human beings who are employed in the coal industry are suffering.

Last week in the coal mining town of Logan, West Virginia, residents there convened the first of several prayer vigils for the saving of their coal businesses. Members of the clergy joined the broader community to offer spiritual assistance as people suffer the loss of jobs, and to pray that their industry will be sustained and reinvigorated.

At least one participant in the event noted that part of the coal industry’s struggle may very well be a matter of bad public relations, and that there may very well be some people who don’t want the industry to exist. There are those, noted Jim Frye of the Logan County Chamber of Commerce, who are seeking to “severely limit our industry,” and there are also those “who would argue to destroy our industry…”

These concerns should not come as a surprise, given President Obama’s campaign pledge. Granted, his glorious “cap and trade” vision has not happened yet, but more stringent regulations on the coal industry have, with more “crack downs” from the E.P.A. are on the way in 2011. And it is a sad day in America when Americans must pray for protection from their own government.