A commentary on vice presidential prospects by Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project, and Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch.

—–

As presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama prepares to make perhaps his most important campaign decision — his choice of a running mate — two governors are said to be on the short list: Tim Kaine of Virginia and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas.

Both are smart and popular. Both face term limits. And both are Catholic, an important constituency that Obama wants to court.

But the two have gone in opposite directions on an issue critical to our nation’s energy future — the role of old-fashioned coal burning versus cleaner alternatives that don’t threaten to worsen global warming.

By her courageous stand against a powerful coal lobby, Sebelius has become one of the nation’s leading champions in the fight against global warming. Kaine, by contrast, continues to support a technology that has helped fuel our current climate calamity.

It’s true that Obama has already received a formal endorsement by major environmental groups that engage in electoral politics such as the League of Conservation Voters. But many environmentalists still aren’t sure where he comes down when it comes to the future of coal. His choice of a partner could send an important signal. Is he really going to break with the politics of the past?

The coal-burning electric power industry is the biggest source of global warming pollution in the United States. It will be impossible to reduce overall carbon dioxide emissions significantly if we permit construction of a new generation of coal plants. We will have to shift to greater use of energy efficiencies and renewable technologies such as wind and solar. Coal may play a role, but only if technologies can be commercialized to capture and store the heat-trapping emissions.

And because of Bush Administration neglect and congressional gridlock, the challenge of dealing with the coal issue has fallen on state governments. It is worth a moment to examine the different approaches taken by Sebelius and Kaine.

In Kansas, a consortium of private companies and electrical coops proposed to a massive, old-fashioned style coal power plant in the rural western part of the state. It would have mostly served out-of-state customers while emitting as much carbon dioxide pollution as several million cars. The pollution would have made it one of the three largest new sources of global warming pollution in the United States.

Many assumed the plant was a done deal because of the combined clout of the coal and power industry lobbies. But in what seemed like a shocking development, last fall the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, with Sebelius’ backing, rejected the plant’s permit on the grounds that it did not limit its heat-trapping emissions.

Sebelius because a model political profile in courage by twice vetoing efforts by the Kansas legislature to override her health department. And she stared down St. Louis-based Peabody Energy, the world’s biggest coal company, which set up a front group to promote the project and compared her to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez.

Sebelius explained her decision by noting that “Of all the duties and responsibilities entrusted to me as Governor, none is greater than my obligation to protect the health and well-being of the people of Kansas.” Sebelius noted that “we know that greenhouse gases contribute to climate change. As an agricultural state, Kansas is particularly vulnerable.”

When confronted with a similar challenged, Kaine ducked. In his case, Dominion Power Company is seeking to build a large conventional coal-fired plant in rural western Virginia. Despite protests my many residents and environmental groups, the Virginia State Corporation Commission and the Air Pollution Control Board gave the project a green light.

Kaine tried to downplay any involvement in the decisions, particularly after it was disclosed that he had received nearly a quarter of a million dollars in campaign contributions from Dominion.

“I am not the one who hands out the permits,” he said in a radio interview. However, Kaine also made it clear that he supported Dominion’s plans.

“We are not going to eliminate coal, a native source that we have, as one of the sources that will power our country,” Kaine said in a radio interview. “We are not going to abandon coal from the portfolio.”

It’s true that unlike Kansas, Virginia has the remnants of a coal mining industry, and Governor Kaine no doubt felt pressure to revive it. But the economic arguments that are so irresistible to politicians just won’t wash anymore. Coal mining regions are consistently among the nation’s poorest, the heavily mechanized industry offers fewer and fewer jobs, and new conventional coal plants are going to be stranded like so many beached whales once carbon limits are adopted.

And so as Obama ponders his potential running mates, will energy issues (other than gasoline prices and offshore drilling) play a prominent role? Will he pick someone who, when confronted with a real challenge, timidly stuck with the past – or someone who boldly looked ahead to a cleaner future?

Controlling greenhouse gases — in the way that scientists say we must — may be the most challenging domestic policy decision the next Administration will face. It will require nothing less than the wholesale realignment of an economy that has been built on fossil fuels for more than a hundred years. If an Obama Administration is going to meet that challenge, it will have to move beyond the petty cost-benefit calculations of more conventional politics. With her decision rejecting Kansas coal plants, Sebelius showed herself able to reach beyond the status quo.