Democratic Candidates, in Coal Country, Wax Enthusiastic About Coal

As Democratic candidates head into a primary schedule heavy with coal-mining states, they have been talking about coal in a way that draws dangerously close to industry talking points on the single biggest air polluter in the U.S. and the fossil fuel with the worst greenhouse gas output rate.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) told an NPR affiliate in West Virginia Wednesday that we need to “make sure that coal plays a major role” in the future and when asked about mountaintop removal, said “maybe there is a way to recover once they have been stripped of the coal.” Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) told a crowd in West Virginia Thursday that “clean coal jobs” are “green jobs.”

Here’s a rundown of some of the issues at play:

Mountaintop Removal:

Sen. Clinton, when asked her position on mountaintop removal, said “it’s a difficult question because of the conflict between the economic and environmental trade-off” and continued, “You know, I think we’ve got to look at this from a practical perspective.”

In the words of Appalachian Voices spokesman J.W. Randolph, “Mountaintop removal does the same thing to our economy as it does to our mountains.” Since 1950, coal-mining jobs in West Virginia have plummeted from over 120,000 to less than 20,000, even as the wasteful and mechanized process of flattening entire mountains for seams of coal has allowed production to increase. Appalachian activist Denise Giardina explained that “it is deep mining that provides jobs,” not mountaintop removal: “To destroy the mountains is to spit in the face of God Almighty.”


Sen. Clinton praised “subsidies for coal-to-liquids projects” and said “I don’t understand” why the Bush administration canceled the FutureGen coal-to-liquids coal-gasification demonstration plant when the $900 million project ballooned to $1.8 billion, with further overruns in sight.

Coal-to-liquids technology, which uses the Fischer-Tropsch process to convert coal into vehicular fuel, “creates almost a ton of carbon dioxide for every barrel of liquid fuel.” The Natural Resources Defense Council explains that many “economic, social, and environmental drawbacks of coal-derived liquid fuel preclude it from being a sound option to move America beyond oil.”

“Clean Coal”:

Sen. Obama told his audience:

We could be investing in renewable sources of energy, and in clean coal technology, and creating up to 5 million new green jobs in the bargain, including new clean coal jobs.

“Clean coal” is a shorthand term for “technologies designed to enhance both the efficiency and the environmental acceptability of coal extraction, preparation and use.” This includes established technologies used to capture methane emitted during coal mining and to “wash” coal before it is burned to separate toxic impurities, as well as technologies to capture and geologically store its greenhouse emissions (CCS) that are “expensive, experimental and not in commercial use.

The coal industry, with the assistance of the current administration, has been fighting regulations to establish or enforce the use of existing technologies to reduce traditional air pollutants produced by coal-burning like mercury and sulfur dioxide. In climate scientist James Hansen’s analysis, the only way to avoid climate catastrophe is to establish “an immediate moratorium on additional coal-fired power plants without CCS.

Van Jones, head of Green For All, defines “a green-collar job” as “a vocational job in an ecologically responsible trade.”

No matter how advanced coal technology becomes, a coal-industry job is simply not in the same class of ecological responsibility as one that involves renewable energy or actually restores carbon and health to the soil.

These issues are complicated and need to be talked about responsibly, especially when the coal front group Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC) is running a $35 million campaign across the nation with the slogan “Clean Coal. America’s Power.


UPDATE: CORRECTION: The FutureGen project in Mattoon, Illinois was to be a demonstration coal-gasification and carbon-sequestration power plant, not a “coal-to-liquids plant.” Although the synthesis gas (syngas) generated by coal gasification is a step in the coal-to-liquids process and can be “used in a fuel cell to produce clean [sic] electricity, or it could be fed to a refinery to help upgrade petroleum products,” it is not a liquid fuel.