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Tom Feran
By Tom Feran August 17, 2012

Mitt Romney says Joe Biden once claimed coal was more dangerous than terrorists

Ohio looms large in this year's presidential race, but Mitt Romney staged an Aug. 14 campaign rally in one of its smallest and poorest places, the village of Beallsville.

Its population is about 400, the median household income is about $23,000, or roughly half the state average. It once gained fame for having the highest per-capita number of residents killed in the Vietnam War of any community in the country. Six men were killed, from its then-population of 475.

Beallsville is also in the heart of southeastern Ohio's Appalachian coal country.

With a group of miners serving as his backdrop, Romney accused President Obama of "waging war on coal" through his energy policies.

"His vice president said coal is more dangerous than terrorists," Romney said. "Can you imagine that? This tells you precisely what he (Obama) actually feels and what he's done and his policies over the last three and a half years have put in place the very vision he had when he was running for office."

Did Vice President Biden really compare coal to terrorism? PolitiFact Ohio was interested.

Romney's campaign told us that the support for Romney's claim was s 2007 interview on HBO’s "Real Time With Bill Maher." The video clip has been making the rounds on the Internet for years.

Maher asked Biden, who was then a candidate for the 2008 presidential nomination, what he thought "is more likely to contribute to the death of your average American: a terrorist strike or high-fructose corn syrup and air that has too much coal in it?"

Biden responded: "Air that has too much coal in it, corn syrup next, then a terrorist attack, but -- that is not in any way to diminish the fact that a terrorist attack is real. It is not an existential threat to bringing down the country, but it does have the capacity, still, to kill thousands of people. But hundreds of thousands of people die and their lives are shortened because of coal plants, coal-fired plants and because of corn syrup."

Biden was not volunteering a comparison between coal-fired pollution and terrorism, nor was he speculating about "danger." He was answering a direct question about likely causes of death.

And, his comment about coal and air pollution was accurate.

The American Lung Association issued a report last year, "Toxic Air," which documented the range of hazardous air pollutants emitted from coal-burning power plants. It called for the installation of cleanup technology as the most effective way to reduce them.

"Coal-fired power plants produce electricity for the nation’s power grid, but they also produce more hazardous air emissions than any other industrial pollution sources," the report said. "Their emissions threaten the health of people who live near these plants, as well as those who live hundreds of miles away."

The Lung Association report said, "Particle pollution from power plants is estimated to kill approximately 13,000 people a year."

A similar report with essentially the same conclusion was issued six months earlier for a study commissioned by the Clean Air Task Force, a national nonprofit research and advocacy organization dedicated to air quality and environmental issues.

"Fine particle pollution from existing coal plants is expected to cause nearly 13,200 deaths in 2010," the analysis found. "Additional impacts include an estimated 9,700 hospitalizations and more than 20,000 heart attacks per year."

The comprehensive study was the third commissioned by the organization, which maintains that adding pollution control technologies to power plants "is not just good for public health; it is also good for the nation’s economy."

Possibly because the latest study found that "coal plant emissions of key particle-forming pollutants like sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) have declined significantly over the last several years," its estimate of 13,200 deaths "compares to an estimate of nearly 24,000 deaths per year from existing plants in the 2004 study."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that a proposed air-transport rule to curb sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide from coal-fired power plants would save 14,000 to 36,000 lives a year and help prevent 21,000 cases of bronchitis and 23,000 heart attacks.

The lowest of those one-year estimates for the United States is larger than the 2011 worldwide total of deaths, 12,533,  that the National Counterrorism Center attributes to terrorism, which U.S. law defines as "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents."

According to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) and its Global Terrorism Database (GTD), 2,997 people died in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.  More people died in the 9/11 attacks than in all other U.S. terrorist attacks from 1970 to 2010.

Since the 9/11 attacks and through 2010, the most recent year with verified statistics in the GTD, "the total number of individuals killed in attacks in the U.S. is 32," the consortium told us. "Twenty-eight of the 32 were U.S. citizens. The nationalities of the others is unknown.

"There were no fatalities (from) 2003 to 2007," the year in which Biden gave his comment.
(High-fructose corn syrup is not relevant here. It was not part of Romney's statement, and it was grouped with air pollution as a single unit by the wording of Maher's question, "terrorist strike or high-fructose corn syrup and air.")

What does this stack up to?

There is an element of truth in Romney's statement. Biden did say -- accurately -- that coal-fired air pollution is more likely to contribute to the death of an average American than is terrorism.

But Romney portrayed Biden’s remark as part of "waging war on coal."

Rather, PolitiFact found that Biden previously has voiced support for "clean coal,"  calling for "carbon capture and sequestration technologies that will allow us to use coal cleanly" in the energy plan he released during his presidential campaign in 2007. "Clean coal" is not a type of coal; the phrase refers to a number of technologies, some in use and others early in the development stage, which would allow the burning of coal for energy without the harmful pollution that coal-fired power plants currently emit.

Biden's statement was made in response to a question and he was addressing health impacts of coal-fired air pollution -- not making a statement about coal or coal energy. He was not making a comparison between terrorism and coal. Yet, Romney’s comment implies that was the case and portrays Biden’s comment was as part of an administration policy against the coal industry.

Those are critical facts that Romney’s claim ignores would give the listener a different impression.

On the Truth-O-Meter, that makes it Mostly False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Mitt Romney Press, "President Obama's Policies Have Hurt Coal," Aug. 14, 2012

Politico, "Video: Romney campaigns in 'coal country,' " Aug 14, 2012, Beallsville, Ohio

Ohio History Central, Beallsville, Ohio

Email with Mitt Romney campaign, Aug. 15, 2012

National Journal, "Romney Uses 2007 Biden Comment to Attack Administration on Coal," Aug. 14, 2012

YouTube, "Biden Says Corn Syrup And Coal More Deadly That (sic) Terrorism," Aug. 27, 2008

CBS News, "Romney uses 2007 Biden comment to attack administration on coal," Aug 14, 2012

American Lung Association, "Toxic Air: Time to Clean Up Coal-fired Power Plants," March 8 2011

Clean Air Task Force, "The Toll from Coal," Sept. 2010

U.S. EPA, "Fact Sheet: Proposed Transport Rule," May 12, 2011

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Region at risk: Can higher rates of death be linked to air pollution?" July 3, 2012

National Counterterrorism Center, "2011 Report on Terrorism," March 12, 2012

National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, "Background Report: 9/11, Ten Years Later," 2011

Email with START, Aug. 15, 2011

START Global Terrorism Database, accessed Aug. 15, 2012

PolitiFact, "A clean hit? Not quite," Oct. 1, 2008

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Mitt Romney says Joe Biden once claimed coal was more dangerous than terrorists

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