“Meeting state energy targets has been a huge driver of the green-tech industry out here,” says the Chronicle’s David Baker. “But it’s also been a huge headache for utilities, and when banks stopped lending, a number of projects shut down.” In July, for example, a $1.5 billion plan to build a six-hundred-mile, high-voltage transmission line to deliver solar, geothermal, and wind power to fifteen municipal providers across northern California collapsed under an array of economic, aesthetic, and health concerns. A dismaying setback for meeting state and district renewable energy targets, it was news from Mount Shasta to the Mojave, but hardly showed up on the national media’s radar. That oversight leaves news consumers outside of California with an oversimplified sense of what is happening in a place where our twenty-first century energy realities are being put to the test first.

Of course, local reporters are also learning as they go. Oregon, much like California, is something of a national repository for our environmental hopes and dreams. But last summer, Oregon Public Broadcasting set out to challenge the state’s “vaunted green reputation” with an energy series called The Switch. Reporter Christy George says that she and her colleagues developed a series of metrics—renewability, cost, contribution to the total power supply—with which to evaluate the state’s energy economy. “It forced us to do some honest, side-by-side comparisons of the different energy sources,” she says, “and led in our very first story to the shocking—to most of us—realization that Oregon gets about forty percent of its power from coal.” That fact challenged a misconception in the state, as the first story in the series explained, that most of Oregon’s power comes from “nice, clean hydroelectric from the Columbia River.” As with coal, the true figure for hydropower is about 40 percent.

Coal’s Mark

The importance of coal may have surprised Oregon’s journalists and readers, but elsewhere it is a way of life. Nationwide, coal accounts for almost a quarter of total energy consumption, about half of our electricity use, and more than one-third of our carbon-dioxide emissions. The environmental impact of that dependence has received a fair amount of media attention recently, including coverage of the pollution in Tennessee and Alabama resulting from the rupture of waste ponds that stored heavy-metal-laced coal ash residue, as well as the latest installments in the long-running battle over regulation of mountaintop mining. Ken Ward Jr., an environment reporter at the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia, says that such stories are important and complement coverage, from Utah to Pennsylvania, of coal’s mark on the planet. What’s often missing, he says, is a more direct evaluation of coal’s present and future importance to our power supply: connecting the dots between environment and energy.

Although there is some indication that America is moving away from coal—most new power plants will use natural gas, according to the federal Energy Information Administration—its consumption is expected to grow in the U.S. for the foreseeable future (and skyrocket in China and India). Coverage of this nascent shift away from coal has been more dependent on political drama than on data. Stories crop up each time a proposal to build a new coal plant is rejected or a representative of the coal industry says that such rejections threaten jobs. Enterprising reports that provide more depth on each side’s position, and what could be done to resolve the disputes, are rare.

The fight to get the American Clean Energy and Security Act through Congress has been emblematic of this problem. The legislation’s passage in the House in June depended largely on a compromise with Democrats from coal-, oil-, and gas-producing states. When the lead negotiator for this faction, Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat, introduced a key amendment that would, as he told The Bluefield Daily Telegraph, “create the opportunity for increasing coal production,” many national and regional outlets followed the story. But as the Gazette’s Ward put it, the story line was often: “ ‘Conservative, Blue Dog Democrat from coal country uses his political muscle to get what he wants.’ There was much less about what Boucher really wanted and why.”

What Boucher wanted, among other things, was federal support for carbon capture and storage (CCS), a controversial technology that, in theory, would eliminate the heat-trapping emissions from coal plants by burying them deep underground. This is the idea behind so-called “clean coal.” Boucher wants CCS because the United Mine Workers wants it, a point that Ward has tried to flesh out at the Gazette. It is not that the union necessarily denies the science behind global warming or the need for clean energy, he says. Rather, the union is simply trying to protect coal jobs and still meet national emissions targets (should they become law).

Curtis Brainard and Cristine Russell are CJR contributors. Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, our online critique of science and environment reporting. Russell, a CJR contributing editor, is the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.