Muckraker: Grist on Politics

Last night, Democratic VP candidate Joe Biden said that his previous remarks on “clean coal” were “taken out of context,” and that he “for 25 years has supported clean coal technology.” The remarks came after moderator Gwen Ifill asked him to clarify earlier, seemingly contradictory statements on clean coal.

Clean coal leapt into the spotlight of campaign 2008 a few weeks back, when a woman asked Joe Biden the question that launched 1,000 shills.

The questioner was Carolyn Auwaerter, an organizer with the environmental group 1Sky. Biden’s response prompted this editorial in the Wall Street Journal accusing Biden of having “liberal energy politics” and an “anticarbon agenda.” The McCain campaign has been making the same argument, and in response the Democratic ticket has been falling over themselves to convince the public that they do, in fact, love coal.

In response to the hub-bub over Biden’s comments, Auwaerter wrote a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal. So far, the Journal’s editorial page hasn’t published it, but the WSJ kindly agreed to allow Grist to post it:

As the woman who asked Sen. Biden the controversy-causing question about “clean coal” at a rope line in Ohio last week, I’d like to respond to the opinion “Biden’s Coal Slaw” published on September 25.

At the event in Maumee, OH, I asked Sen. Biden why he and Sen. Obama supported clean coal, given that both the wind and solar industries are expanding in Ohio.

His response set off a mini-firestorm in the media, fanned by attacks and rebuttals from both campaigns. Instead of leading to a national examination of this proposed technology, the storyline devolved into a political ‘he said, she said’ that presumes clean coal is king.

But the media and the campaigns are missing the crucial point: “Clean coal” is a contradiction in terms. Conventional coal-burning power plants are the leading cause of global warming pollution in the United States. Coal lobbyists will immediately reply that they can develop coal plants in the future that will capture and sequester carbon pollution.

But this is misleading. Carbon capture and sequestration is unproven, dangerous, and exorbitantly expensive. At best, the technology will not be commercially available until 2030 and the U.S. Department of Energy calculates that installing carbon capture systems will almost double plant costs, which won’t provide any relief to Americans’ soaring utility bills.

The money, research and political capital spent on the boondoggle of carbon capture should be directed towards real solutions that we have right now, not in theory — solutions like wind power, solar power, and gains in energy efficiency.

The media and campaigns should start focusing on the real gaffe here: clean coal as an answer to the energy crisis.

Carolyn Auwaerter, 1Sky