Muckraker: Grist on Politics

At a campaign stop in Ohio last week, a questioner with a camera asked Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden why, if wind and solar are doing well, the Obama-Biden campaign is supporting “clean coal.” Biden gave this confusing response:

We’re not supporting “clean coal.” Guess what: China’s building two every week, two dirty coal plants. And it’s polluting the United States, it’s causing people to die … China is gonna burn 300 years of bad coal unless we figure out how to clean their coal up, because it’s going to ruin your lungs and there’s nothing we can do about it. No coal plants here in America. Build them, if they’re going to build them over there, make ‘em clean because they’re killing you.”

It’s not entirely clear what Biden was trying to say there, but it was probably an ineloquent rephrasing of what he told Grist last year when asked about “clean coal”:

I don’t think there’s much of a role for clean coal in energy independence, but I do think there’s a significant role for clean coal in the bigger picture of climate change. Clean-coal technology is not the route to go in the United States, because we have other, cleaner alternatives. But I would invest a considerable amount of money in research and development of clean-coal and carbon-sequestration technologies for export. China is building one new coal-fired plant per week. That’s not going to change unless there’s a fundamental change in technology, because they have about 300 years of dirty coal, and they’re going to use it.

Barack Obama, who comes from a coal state, has been more enthusiastic than his running mate, touting his support for coal during the campaign and even giving “clean coal” a shout-out during his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention last month. During his time in Congress, Obama pushed hard to get the nation’s first zero-emissions coal power plant, FutureGen, built in his home state of Illinois. The Department of Energy did pick Illinois, but soon thereafter tabled the project because costs had ballooned; Obama then joined the rest of the Illinois congressional delegation in calling on the DOE to revive FutureGen. Separately, two years ago, Obama successfully sponsored a measure to dedicate $200 million in federal funding for the development of technology to capture and sequester carbon from coal plants.

But the McCain campaign this week has seized on Biden’s quote, arguing that it demonstrates the Democratic ticket doesn’t support “clean coal.” In a new video ad released today, the McCain campaign intersperses clips of Biden’s comments from last week with clips of Obama praising coal, mocking the duo for being inconsistent. “Ready to pander? Yes,” says the ad. “Ready to lead? No.” (Watch the ad at the bottom of this post.)

McCain himself talked about the issue on the trail yesterday: “My opponent is against the expansion of nuclear power. His running mate here in Ohio recently said that they weren’t supporting clean coal either. And the fact is that their billions of dollars in higher taxes would kill jobs here in Ohio. That’s not what Ohio needs and that’s not what America needs.”

McCain’s campaign yesterday also announced that it’s forming a “Coalition to Protect Coal Jobs,” which includes a number of Republican political leaders from coal states, including former Virginia Sen. George Allen, West Virginia Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, and former Colorado Rep. Scott McInnis.

At a press conference announcing the coalition yesterday, Allen said, “Abundant American clean coal is, and must be, an essential component of America’s strategic energy independence for affordable electricity and a potential transportation fuel.”

“Clean coal” may turn out to be a critical part of the American energy mix, but it’s a quite a stretch to say it already is — not a single coal plant in the U.S. is sequestering its carbon emissions underground, and most experts predict that wide-scale carbon capture and sequestration is at least a decade away, if it proves economically feasible at all.

The Obama camp fires back

The Obama campaign has launched a vigorous defense, arguing that Obama and Biden really are big boosters of “clean coal.”

“Sen. McCain knows that Sen. Obama and Sen. Biden support clean-coal technology,” said Obama campaign spokesperson David Wade. “Sen. Biden’s point is that China is building coal plants with outdated technology every day, and the United States needs to lead by developing clean-coal technologies.”

“The Obama-Biden comprehensive energy plan will invest $150 billion over 10 years in clean energy technologies, including incentives to accelerate private-sector investment in commercial-scale zero-carbon coal facilities,” Wade continued. “The Obama-Biden Department of Energy is committed to developing five ‘first-of-a-kind’ commercial-scale coal-fired plants with carbon capture and sequestration here in the United States.”

Obama’s campaign also held a press call yesterday on energy issues, in which Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) vouched for Obama’s pro-coal credentials. “Sen. Obama truly is a friend of the coal industry,” said Boucher. “His record in terms of what he’s done as a member of the U.S. Senate and his positions in terms of the coal industry’s future give us confidence that he truly will be a friend of coal once elected.”

But the Obama campaign has also said that they want no new coal plants until carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology is viable and deployable. Jason Grumet, a top Obama energy adviser, told Grist that “the policies we have already articulated make [coal plants without CCS] economically unrealistic.” And at a panel sponsored by the Society of Environmental Journalists in April, Grumet said that Obama’s proposed cap-and-trade plan “will make it absolutely ludicrous to even contemplate any type of coal, new coal, that is not 100 percent sequestered.”

McCain is calling for a cap-and-trade plan too, but he hasn’t addressed the question of what role coal should play before CCS is a reality.

Here’s the McCain campaign ad, entitled “The Coal Miner”: