Obama’s (And Our) Clean-Coal Blues

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The Internets are all atwitter today with talk of Obama’s supposedly devastating admission that he wants to “bankrupt” the coal industry in the United States. An Ohio industry spokesman said Obama is a “disaster“; conservative blogs are attributing the remarks to some kind of San Francisco “truth serum”, and Sarah Palin is accusing the San Francisco Chronicle, which conducted the offending interview back in January, of deliberately hiding its content from voters. (See the article and the Chron‘s rebuttal here.)

I just want to make a few points to inject a little sanity into this discussion. First, as I mentioned above, the quote comes from a comprehensive sit-down interview Obama conducted with the Chronicle nearly nine months ago. (Watch the whole thing here.) Since then, his stance on this issue has been pretty consistent. He supports a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions (as does John McCain, by the by), as well as the development of “clean coal” technology.

Here’s where we get to the real problem. In the interview, Obama asks, “how can we use coal without emitting greenhouse gases and carbon? And how can we sequester that carbon and capture it?” Characterizing unilateral opposition to coal as “ideological,” Obama also stresses that since we already get so much of our electricity from coal, we can’t expect to eliminate it from the mix anytime soon. “If technology allows us to use coal in a clean way, we should pursue it,” he concludes.

But when it comes to “clean coal”, it’s environmentalists who should be worried, not coal executives.

As James Ridgeway reported in our recent energy issue, so-called “clean coal” technology is in its infancy, and the prospects do not look good. The types of technology the industry says it will use are expensive and ineffective at best, and potentially catastrophic at worst—in other words, even if we were able to get our technology up to speed and somehow capture the carbon leaving every coal plant in the country, we wouldn’t have anywhere safe to put it.

But those things don’t matter to a marketing campaign. Coal companies like the idea of carbon sequestration, Ridgeway writes, “not because it is actually a viable solution to coal’s vast environmental problems, but because it seems like one.”

So for those of us interested in really promoting clean energy, the problem with Obama’s remarks isn’t that he wants to charge the coal industry for their carbon—it’s that he appears to harbor the same delusions as industry executives about the potential of coal to be green. Our energy challenges are too great, and the potential consequences too severe, to settle for such a shallow fix.

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