Is There a War on Coal?

As their final action before the November elections, the House of Representatives passed the “Stop the War on Coal Act”, a five-part bundled bill designed to reduce regulations on the coal industry – regulations that bill supporters say have lead to industry job losses and plant closures.

The largely party-line vote (233 to 175, with 19 Democrats crossing the aisle to vote “yes”) is typical of the post-2010 (solidly) Republican House, which has passed many bills that are more ideological statement than actual governance (the House GOP loves being able to show policies they voted for--and their opponents’ party voted against--to their constituents in an election year like this one). This does not mean that passing numerous bills is a bad thing – indeed, it would be nice if the senate could actually pass a bill once in a while – but rather it is saddening to know that few of the House’s bills ever even come to a vote in the senate.

But perhaps this specific bill shows something the House Republicans could be doing different. While the bill could actually do some good for the coal industry and energy consumers (i.e., all Americans), a problem will arise when any potential senator would go to read it; specifically, when they read the title.

Calling a bill the “Stop the War on Coal Act” is, well, stupid. Naming it that effectively guarantees virtually no Democratic support for it, since it frames the bill as a shield against the supposed “war on coal” being waged by President Obama and the EPA.

This election year has been spoiled by the declaration of various “Wars on X”, although the declarations have been made by those who would claim to be victims rather than the supposed aggressors. Democrats allege a Republican “War on Women,” Republicans allege a Democratic “War on Religion” and now this “War on Coal”.

In the American context, there is a War on Terror, a War in Afghanistan, and a War on Drugs…but that is it. There is no “war” being waged against women, religion, or coal. Labeling the policies and ideologies of the other side (which, as noted above, is one of the few bipartisan efforts) as a “war” is not only untrue and condemnably venomous but it also devalues the wars that this country actually is fighting. We don’t fight wars because we disagree with something; we fight them to protect innocent lives. Calling Republican attempts to curtail abortions or Democratic attempts to ease access to them “wars” in any sense reduces the honor of our men and women in uniform, whether they be pursuing al-Qaeda in Afghanistan or drug cartels in the Southwest.

The same goes with this “War on Coal” – specifically, that there is no such war, but rather only some tough regulations that should be rethought, given the struggling economy. The Democratic liberal base is generally antagonistic towards the coal industry, and let’s be honest: from when it is first mined to when it is burned, coal is a particularly environmentally-unfriendly fuel at nearly every step. However, it is a non-green fuel that the base of our nation’s economy is grounded upon and one that supports thousands of middle-class jobs, as it has for over a century. We cannot just wish away our dependence on coal and we cannot just wish unfeasible alternatives into practicality. As such, market freedom in and governmental friendliness towards the coal industry is surely an issue that Republicans could get more Democrats on board with. But the House Republicans (or the Democrats, if they should retake the House majority in the imminent elections) need to learn that even though you are in the majority you still need to at least attempt to appeal to the other side, and labeling is the first step in that process. Congress should make it a bipartisan priority upon reconvening to take up a rigorous debate over the regulation of the coal industry, not with the goal of repealing Obama’s policies or stopping any more dirty coal from being mined, but rather with a goal that Democrats and Republicans hold in common: efficient, reliable energy and jobs for American citizens.