Reading the tea leaves on Clinton’s coal comments

By Manuel Quiñones | 07/16/2015 07:55 AM EDT

When former secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke to Democratic senators on Capitol Hill this week, she emphasized the need for action on climate change but also had some positive words about coal.

When former secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke to Democratic senators on Capitol Hill this week, she emphasized the need for action on climate change but also had some positive words about coal.

The comments raised eyebrows. With Clinton still rolling out her policy agenda and refusing to take a position on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, environmentalists and energy interests alike are seeking any clues about her plans for the presidency.

"She did talk at length and with some passion about the need to recognize that as we go through this transition, that we have to respect the contribution that the coal industry has made to American growth, and that coal miners in particular, the sacrifices that they’ve made to create what is modern America," said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a staunch defender of climate action.


Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), one of the strongest pro-coal voices on Capitol Hill, said Clinton’s comments prove his earlier assertion that she would be better for coal than President Obama.

"That was very good. She understood," Manchin said about Clinton’s comments, which she made behind closed doors Tuesday. "She said, listen, we’re not leaving anybody behind."

For Manchin, that means a Clinton presidency would embrace research to help make burning coal cleaner and reject mandating technology that would make building or running new plants tougher.

"I think it will be a very understanding policy, an all-in energy policy, and using the technology for the betterment of our ability to help the climate," said Manchin.

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which has for months been pushing Clinton to remember her previous pro-coal views, including while wooing Appalachian voters in 2008, was less enthusiastic about her latest comments.

"Secretary Clinton would do well to think about coal-based electricity as a national issue rather than an issue critical to a few affected states," said ACCCE spokeswoman Laura Sheehan.

At least some pro-coal advocates wondered whether Clinton had really delivered pro-coal statements or repeated the Obama administration’s call for helping communities affected by the energy transition.

"While we appreciate Mrs. Clinton’s ‘compassion’ toward the significant role coal-based power generation has played in our nation’s economy, we remind her that the everyday people she purports to champion are those who will face tough decisions between eating or keeping the lights on if President Obama’s climate crusade is not halted," said Sheehan.

Many environmentalists also have continued to express skepticism about Clinton. Not only has she held off on detailing more of her views, but they think she may follow her husband’s model of finding a middle ground on issues like energy and climate.

Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, also running for the Democratic presidential nomination, was the voice of Clinton skeptics this week. He left the gathering where she was speaking early to address the cameras (E&ENews PM, July 14).

"I happen to agree very strongly with Pope Francis that climate change is the great planetary crisis, environmental crisis that we face; I have helped lead the opposition against the Keystone pipeline," Sanders said. "I think that Secretary Clinton has not been clear on her views on that issue."

Still, Clinton’s views on climate were forceful enough and her statements about coal nuanced enough to leave many of her Democratic colleagues — even ardent climate hawks — pleased with her comments.

"So I thought that was an important area of emphasis," said Schatz, "that she wants to show that she understands what people are going through — and that, as a transition to a clean energy economy happens, that we have to respect people in every walk of life, including those who are currently in the fossil fuels industry."

Last month, during her first major policy speech, Clinton expressed support for charging companies more money in royalties for extracting resources from public lands (E&E Daily, June 15). She was bullish, however, on renewables.

Even though the campaigns are just taking off, many donors are still not in play, and Clinton has not followed Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) in rejecting fossil fuel industry donations, while coal companies and executives will likely continue the trend of favoring Republican candidates.

Reporters Jean Chemnick and Hannah Northey contributed.