Commentary Magazine


Don’t Compare War on Coal to Tobacco

As the negative feedback about President Obama’s new regulations aimed at strangling the coal industry from Democrats as well as Republicans continues to pour in, administration cheerleaders aren’t daunted. Writing off coal producing states is no big deal to the coastal elites who have been push the environmental alarmist agenda that forms the rationale for the coal-killing orders from the Environmental Protection Agency. And if it means losing a few more House seats or the Democrats best chance of stealing a Republican Senate seat in Kentucky, for most liberals that seems a small price to pay for the joy of imposing their warming views on the nation. Though, as even the New York Times noted yesterday, the measures will have little if any impact on the amount of carbon in the earth’s atmosphere, a devastating blow to the nation’s economy is considered an unimportant detail to those who believe the earth is melting.

But contempt for economic concerns isn’t the only factor behind the confidence of climate change extremists. They believe there is a precedent for an elitist campaign directed at a specific industry and the regions that depend on it: tobacco. One of the chief liberal talking points on cable news shows as well as the conceit of a feature in today’s Times, is the idea that coal can be defeated as easily as tobacco was in the 1990s as a wave of regulations cut back on a huge business that was once king in some states as well as on Capitol Hill. If big tobacco could be toppled, why not coal, which can’t depend on the loyalty of millions of addicts and hasn’t been promoted by generations of Madison Avenue execs and their ads?

But though the analogy is exactly what liberals want to be told, the analogy is a false one. The superficial comparisons between a once-unchallenged sector of the economy and another that is in the crosshairs of the Obama administration may seem like sense. But it is based on a fallacy. Americans could be persuaded to stop smoking and to place restrictions on the ability of the tobacco industry to sell or to market their product to minors. But coal is not a symbol of teenage rebellion or an unpleasant personal habit. It is a vital cog in the engine of the American economy that lights homes and keeps factories working. It may be supplanted in part by natural gas (which the warming crowd also hates) but it is not going away any time in the foreseeable future. America needs coal.

The tactics that helped mollify tobacco-growing states aren’t likely to work with coal. Raising the price of tobacco via the imposition of draconian taxes could induce many Americans to quit a nasty habit that could eventually kill them. But as even the Times pointed out:

The government’s method of weaning the nation from each product — by raising the price — has a regressive impact. In the case of carbon emissions, it hits not just the poor who can least afford higher energy prices but also those in rural areas who tend to drive long distances.

The impact of raising the cost of fossil fuels would be broader than taxing tobacco. Smokers, in the end, can quit, difficult as that may be. A Montana rancher cannot give up his pickup truck.

Measures aimed at putting more than 600 coal-fired power plants around the country out of business won’t just inconvenience those who work to mine coal which is, after all, a group that could be retrained or bought off by the government in some way. But cutting back on the availability of power will send everyone’s electricity costs skyrocketing and put more people out of work than can be subsidized by federal largesse.

Moreover, tobacco was already on the way out as demand for the product lessened in the decades after the first warnings about the connection between smoking and cancer as well as other diseases. Environmentalists may dislike coal but it is still a staple of the U.S. economy and doesn’t bring with it the sort of opprobrium that was brought down on smoking as the culture changed.

Though it was once considered not merely socially acceptable but a staple of our culture, tobacco was always a luxury product, not a necessity, let alone a pillar of the economy. Weaning individuals and even regions from dependence on it was hard but not impossible. But though many on the left believe in alternatives to fossil fuels the way toddlers cling to the Tooth Fairy, there is little likelihood that wind or solar or nuclear (which is a viable option but even more politically incorrect than coal) can replace oil, gas or coal. If it is to continue to prosper, America will need coal for decades to come.

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