by Clifford Smith, FME Law Counsel
(photo courtesy of

In 2008, Candidate Obama said that his energy policy would allow someone to make a new coal plant, but “If someone wants to build a new coal-fired power plant they can, but it will bankrupt them because they will be charged a huge sum for all the greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.”

While ending coal is the stated goal of The Sierra Club and their “Beyond Coal” campaign, this was a startling statement for a major national political figure to make. Proposing totally “bankrupting” an industry that is in abundant supply and provides about 40% of America’s energy seemed to be extreme. So of course, Candidate Obama backtracked almost immediately, and the Obama Administration’s stated stance on coal has been that they want to make it cleaner of course, but not “bankrupt” the industry. The “War on Coal” is a myth, they claim.

However, recent emails uncovered by FOIA requests with the help of the efforts of the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic on behalf of their client, The Energy and Environmental Law Institute show that, in spite of supposedly softening their position, ever since the failure of the so called “Cap and Trade” bill, the EPA worked explicitly to “Bankrupt” the coal industry, all while denying that is what they are doing.

The Obama Administration’s claim to have switched stances has always strained credulity. Leadership at the EPA is almost exclusively made up of former employees of environmental pressure groups and some career bureaucrats. There isn’t a single business leader, union leader, or even former elected official, in any significant position of leadership at EPA. The emails show what could be suspected: people who spend years or decades trying to do something as activists don’t suddenly change their mind when they get a high-level political appointment.

The most “entertaining” email of the batch is one from Sierra Club “Beyond Coal” leader John Coequyt, to the Associate EPA Administrator Michael Goo and Senior EPA Advisor Alex Barron. The email is only one sentence long, along with a forwarded article entitled “Coal to Remain Viable, Says EPA’s McCarthy at COAL-GEN Keynote.”

“Pants on Fire,” says Coequyt.

In other words, we know she’s lying for us, keep up the good work. It seems that Mr. Coequyt shares the opinion of House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton, who had recently scolded head EPA officials in his committee, saying “The EPA is holding the coal industry to impossible standards. But Mr. Coequyt seems to think the fact that McCarthy is lying to industry and the public about it is funny. It might be worth noting, at this point, that the regulations must be technologically and economically viable under the law. Oops.

How did Mr. Coequyt know that senior  EPA officials were “in” on McCarthy’s lie? Easy, he’d been working with them for years to end the coal industry. He wasn’t shy about it, according to the emails. In one particular email, entitled “Zombies,” Coequyt frets that it might be possible to have a new coal plant under proposed regulations, and wants to make sure that isn’t so. “Attached is a list of plants that the companies said were shelved because of uncertainty around GHG regulations. If a standard is set that these plants could meet, there is not a small chance that they company could decide to revive the proposal.” Instead of EPA officials telling Coequyt that, of course, some “clean” plants would be allowed, and the rule wasn’t being written to end coal, Coequyt’s email is forwarded around to various EPA officials in an effort to ensure his fears don’t come true and the plants remain closed. Coequyt later sends around a “score sheet” to senior EPA officials in which he tracks how many coal power plants have been shuttered, and encourages the EPA to send it around “for internal use only” you understand. Wouldn’t want it to get out in public what we’re really doing. The EPA has gone at lengths to hide this story, and it took the threat of being dragged into court on violations of the Freedom of Information Act for them to start coughing up documents related to their relationship with the Sierra Club. But it seems even then, the EPA is still hiding things. Another odd email exchange is a forward of a news article entitled “Will EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Regs Wipe Out Coal?” between Barron and Goo. Implausibly, Barron’s final response to the question is redacted in total. It’s too cute by half.

I could name numerous other examples of egregious behavior and dishonest deeds. Some of the best include the long chain of emails between various EPA officials to discuss where to get friendly audiences for public comments, some conducted, illegally, on private email. Others discuss “Sue and Settle” collusions between The Sierra Club and the EPA in which they hold one position publicly, but then collude with The Sierra Club when sued to get a desired result in the “settlement,” so they can plausibly say “We had to comply with the law,” as if they were innocent bystanders. But the bottom line is pretty simple; the “War on Coal” isn’t a figment of anyone’s imagination. It’s a daily reality at the EPA. Candidate Obama’s is the “real” stance of the Obama Administration, not their more tame statements they’ve made since.

The consequences of a “War on Coal” are multifold. If successful, the price of energy would “necessarily skyrocket” as Candidate Obama once said, which would also raise the price of virtually everything else indirectly, since virtually everything relies on energy in some form or another. The cost to the gross domestic product is more than $2 trillion dollars over a 10 year period, according to a study by The Heritage Foundation. It would also make certain people, namely those in the natural gas and wind/solar industries, which are comparatively small parts of the market, extremely wealthy. Not surprisingly, they’ve been very friendly to Obama with their campaign contributions and votes.

But ending coal as an industry is not some mundane discussion of numbers, the gross domestic product, or industry battles, but something that affects the lives of real people. As The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association pointed out in their testimony to the EPA, opposing its latest attempt to shut down all coal, the peaks and valleys in the price of natural gas would make for a horribly unstable life for rural Americans and virtually eliminate many of their access to affordable energy. We cannot expect to artificially end a source of 40% of our electricity and not expect it to have massive human costs. The casualty of the war on coal, ultimately, won’t be coal, but people, their jobs, and their ways of life.