The political dilemma over coal resurfaced in last week's vice presidential debate, when Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin got into a tiff over Biden's stance on clean coal. Earlier, at an Ohio rally, Biden had told a reporter, "We're not supporting clean coal." Apparently, he hadn't checked with his running mate -- Obama disagrees. Biden rushed to cover his gaffe;cid=1252708897&ei=k4rlSI7PF46EggON9LCjAQ&usg=AFQjCNH_abmQNYA3ajAL9P6yVn6XoZh7CQ&loc=interstitialskip during the debate by saying his remarks had been taken out of context.
The talk about clean coal is similar to an earlier political fracas over clean cars. Faced with calls for tighter fuel economy standards, Detroit responded with ad campaigns pointing out all the money it was spending to develop cars that would run on hydrogen fuel cells, which would emit nothing but water. In other words: We don't need to clean up now, because the car of the future is on the way. Never mind that the hydrogen fuel cell is a speculative technology that may never arrive.
Coal producers are similarly trying to head off future greenhouse-gas regulation by marketing so-called clean coal, which relies on the notion that we eventually will be able to liquefy carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants and pump the waste underground, a process called “carbon sequestration.” Even if all the bugs can be worked out -- and there are serious concerns that the underground carbon would leak into the atmosphere -- this would be an extremely expensive process that might never pencil out economically.
Coal backers rightly point out that even without carbon sequestration, new technologies have reduced some emissions. But this is sort of like tobacco companies claiming that filtered cigarettes are "safe"; just because it's cleaner doesn't make it clean. From extraction to combustion, coal is an environmental catastrophe. It is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, the top source of mercury pollution and among the top causes of global warming. Particles and soot from burning coal kill thousands of Americans every year. And its extraction ruins ecosystems as mountains are blown apart and the rubble is tossed into streams.
McCain and Obama back coal because they want to win key coal-producing swing states such as Virginia and Pennsylvania. Yet their embrace of a 19th century solution to a 21st century energy problem is an embarrassment to both campaigns.