In a story, fittingly, featured in the Charleston Gazette, in West Virginia's coal country, about people are puzzling over how John McCain and Barack Obama really feel about coal.
They both say they support "clean coal" -- a code word for yet-to-be-developed technology that would either turn coal to gas before burning, or else bury the carbon emissions deep underground after burning. It's a way for politicians to embrace an abundant domestic fuel source that employs blue-collar workers, without embracing the pollution that comes along with it.
About 50 % of U.S. electricity comes from burning coal, and it's the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as pollution in the form of toxic mercury, acid rain gases, smog and soot. In a word: dirty.
Coal is, along with oil, the central figure in our energy picture. Yet, the candidates focus energy talking about it. Nuclear power and offshore oil drilling form the backbone of McCain's energy talking points, while renewable energy and conservation form the backbone of Obama's. Both candidates say they would cap and trade carbon emissions, putting a de facto tax on coal-fired power plants.
But they see coal very much being used into the future, just by newer, cleaner methods. But where does all that coal originate?
In much of Appalachia, mountaintop removal is the method favored by coal mining companies -- and it ain't pretty. Mountaintops are blasted open to reveal coal seems, which are mined, while the tailings and waste rock is dumped into valleys that held previously pristine streams. Of course, after the mining starts, the streams run toxic, or disappear altogether under a man-made avalanche.
Both McCain and Obama have said they don't support mountaintop removal as a method for extracting coal, which leaves the coal industry -- and us -- wondering how the candidates think we'll get all this coal to clean up? Sure, coal is mined elsewhere -- the Powder River basin of Wyoming, for instance, and in South America, where some of our imports originate. (Coal, being a global commodity like oil, is more and more expensive as India and China ramp up their use of domestic coal, and import fuel from Indonesia and elsewhere.)
Coal mining, no matter how and where it's done, can't be said to be "clean." It sounds like the candidates are taking advantage of weak press attention to the issue and having it both ways -- being for coal, and coal industry workers, but against the pollution that results.
Obama's running mate, Joe Biden -- notoriously loose-lipped -- suggested in this YouTube clip that he opposes new coal-fired power plants in the U.S., but wants the U.S. to invest in clean coal technology for use in Asia:
Read more about his statement on Huffington Post Green.
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