An article last week from PolitiFact — a Pulitzer-award winning fact-checking publication — gave United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts a “mostly false” rating after Roberts said there are 1,600 coal-fired power plants under construction worldwide.
PolitiFact found there are actually 458 plants under construction. Another 445 are in the permitting or pre-permitting stages. Another 257 have been announced. Even combining all of these numbers, the total still comes out to 1,160, which is below the mark Roberts cited.
PolitiFact is being generous with Roberts’ statement. Going strictly by the “under construction as I speak” line from Roberts (from a speech he gave Sept. 4 at the National Press Club), the actual number is barely over 25 percent of what he claimed.
It’s hard to tell if Roberts is being deliberately deceitful, though. PolitiFact did find the 1,600 number in a New York Times article, but it was about two years old and, obviously, a lot has changed since then. It’s certainly possible, even likely, that Roberts is merely repeating old information. That happens quite a bit in the realm of persuasive dialogue — a person finds a statistic or a number and frequently pulls it out to make a point without going back to see if that information has changed. That seems to be the reason PolitiFact went with its “mostly false” rating, instead of just calling the statement false.
Regardless of intent, it’s important to stay on top of the relevant data and use accurate numbers, especially when it concerns something as politicized and convoluted as the coal industry.
While Roberts and others see the industry continuing to contribute significantly to worldwide energy in the future (none of the coal-fired plants under construction or planned are in the United States), inflated numbers can give miners and their families a false sense of security. While no one wants to be the bearer of bad news about the future of coal — an industry steadily declining domestically — giving employees a distorted picture of what is happening and what is coming isn’t doing them any favors.
Now, more than ever, it’s necessary to provide accurate, up-to-date information on topics of this importance. Otherwise, credibility can evaporate and the argument just becomes another blurb carried on the howling winds of conflicting claims and misinformation.