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Meg Jacobs: Hillary Clinton won't win West Virginia, but she's right to be trying

Democratic candidate should use Jimmy Carter as a model on clean energy compromise, she says

Editor’s Note: Meg Jacobs teaches history at Columbia and Princeton. She is the author of a new book, “Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s” (Hill and Wang). Unless otherwise noted, facts included here reflect that book’s research. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. Follow her on Twitter @MegJacobs100.

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On Tuesday, voters will go to the polls in West Virginia. All signs indicate that Hillary Clinton is doomed there. Even if she wins the primary, she has sufficiently angered voters with her comments on coal. “We are going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” she said at a March CNN town hall, almost sounding like she was going to close the mines down herself. At her appearance on May 2, protesters drowned her out with signs that read, “I am proud to be a coal miner’s daughter” amid a sea of Trump banners. At his rally, supporters waved “Trump Digs Coal” posters.

Meg Jacobs
Courtesy Meg Jacobs
Meg Jacobs

Even if the primary doesn’t affect her drive for the nomination, a primary loss in West Virginia will sting, especially after her victory over Obama there in 2008. Although coal representatives and workers themselves attack President Obama and Clinton for their alleged war on coal, the industry is in decline for other reasons.

As Richard Revesz, the former NYU law school dean, and Jack Lienke have shown, much of the coal industry infrastructure has long outlived its intended natural life cycle. As these plants retire, the reality is that they are already being replaced with natural gas. That was the context for Clinton’s unfortunate remarks. In point of fact, she has put forward a plan to help transitioning workers.

Still, Clinton’s embrace of clean energy understandably angers these very same workers. For years, Democrats bolstered the coal industry, even as they embraced an environmental agenda. Both to win votes and to achieve a viable clean energy strategy, she must forge a path toward meaningful and politically possible energy reform. For a guide on that path, she can look to Jimmy Carter, whom many hail as the last, and to some the only, truly conservationist president.

No one did more than Jimmy Carter to win support among the coal producers. In 1980, it was one of the few states where the Democrat beat Ronald Reagan in his landslide victory.

That fact might come as a surprise. On the surface, Carter was an enemy of coal and coal miners. He helped to end a strike by coal miners, he signed the Clean Air Act amendment of 1977 that tightened emissions regulations and he also signed legislation to limit strip mining. The reaction in coal country was just as fierce then as it is today.

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Carter’s move was part of a larger conservation agenda that he pushed from his first days in office, where he told the country they would have to use less energy and make real sacrifices for the sake of their own future.

A powerful proponent of clean energy, Carter embraced renewable energies because they would solve the energy crisis of the time — dependence on oil from insecure sources in the Middle East — without additional pollution.

In the summer of 1979, oil shortages in the wake of the Iranian Revolution caused mile-long gas lines. When Carter visited Los Angeles, his motorcade had to drive 20 miles out of its way to fill up.

At the White House, Carter dedicated 32 new solar panels on the roof. He promised that by 2000 the country would obtain 20% of its energy needs from solar and other renewables.

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As the lines spread and frustrated motorists stole gas out of others’ tanks, he told Americans in a nationally televised address that they would have to change their wasteful ways. It was a moral imperative on energy. The country needed a spiritual cleansing and it would start by driving less, car pooling and turning up thermostats.

What’s often forgotten is what came next. The president devoted the rest of the speech to an $88 billion synthetic fuels program in which coal would play a major part. In stumping for the U.S. Synthetic Fuels Corporation, Carter said, “The United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal.”

This plan infuriated environmentalists. “This is Armageddon,” declared the Sierra Club.

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The Synthetics Fuels Corporation was a misguided effort that came to naught. Ultimately it fell under the ax of Ronald Reagan’s budget cuts. But we can learn from Carter’s effort. Reaching the goal of clean energy, he understood, required building coalitions and accepting political tradeoffs. Energy independence, from foreign sources and from fossil fuel dependence, meant making compromises.

As Carter pushed synthetic fuels, he supported the Alaska Lands Conservation Act that would preserve this wilderness from oil exploration. He also opposed the nuclear breeder reactor and limited offshore exploration.

To pass his National Energy Act, a multipart bill that included improving energy efficiency, cutting emissions, and encouraging adoption of energy saving and renewable technologies, he supported industrial conversion from oil and natural gas to coal.

Carter thought these deals were worth it. By 1981, American oil imports declined substantially and energy efficiency had improved.

Today, Clinton has an opportunity to find productive compromise. Even though she is likely to lose West Virginia in the general election — no Democrat has won the state since her husband in 1996 — she is there because of her commitment to solving today’s energy crisis. Clinton’s energy crisis is global warming. Like Carter, Clinton has to address this issue head on, while also recognizing the political tradeoffs that progress will require. That might make her unpopular in the primaries, but it is likely to give her a better chance at being effective in the Oval Office.

She needs to forge an alliance between the energy of the past and the energy of the future.

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She has promised that by the end of her first term she will deploy half a billion solar panels. The country is indeed moving in that direction. More people got employment installing solar panels than on oil rigs in 2015. But coal miners don’t live where it is windy or sunny, so they are not the ones who are likely to benefit.

Clinton’s visit to West Virginia is a recognition that as the country contemplates a new energy policy, it will require easing the transition from old to new sources. If she becomes president, she will have to figure out a broad political coalition to support the move to clean energy. The first step is addressing the anger of the coal miners, who understandably feel abandoned by the party that had long championed their interests. The long green road to energy reform will not be easy, but her visit to West Virginia suggests she understands the political challenges ahead.

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Meg Jacobs teaches history at Columbia and Princeton. She is the author of a new book, “Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s” (Hill and Wang). Unless otherwise noted, facts included here reflect that book’s research. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. Follow her on Twitter @MegJacobs100.