Like climate change, energy is a highly partisan issue. Many Democrats embrace a panoply of renewable energy sources while Republicans tend to favor developing coal, oil, gas, and nuclear energy. But geographic bias affects coverage as well. Californians are more likely to encounter stories about solar power than about coal, and vice versa for Virginians. The trouble with such fragmented coverage is that as policymakers and the energy industry push forward with the development of clean-energy strategies, it will be incumbent upon journalists to connect what is happening in their part of the country to much broader national and international goals. Such goals include revitalizing domestic manufacturing and the nation’s export economy, providing relief from foreign oil imports, and weaning us off fossil fuels to a degree that is environmentally meaningful. So the press must reconcile coordinated, nationwide targets for change with not-in-my-backyard fights related to wind farms and transmission lines in one place; dependence upon mining and drilling jobs tied to coal, oil, and gas in another; and a lack of public transportation in most of the country.

No state has done more to give the clean-energy story “pop” than California. Its long battle to win a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency that would allow it to raise its fuel efficiency standards above federal levels, as well as its landmark 2006 law to limit carbon-dioxide emissions, pushed the federal government to take such regulatory and legislative initiatives seriously. Silicon Valley’s investment in clean energy start-ups and the birth of activist Van Jones’s green-jobs campaign in the San Francisco Bay Area also helped to make the Golden State a gold mine for energy reporters. “There aren’t any energy stories here without national implications,” says Margot Roosevelt, the Los Angeles Times’s environment reporter. Indeed, California is a ubiquitous theme in coverage from coast to coast, but too much of that national coverage exhibits a certain cognitive dissonance, explaining the ambitious goals of the various energy initiatives without including an all-important status report. As a result, the reality check is left mostly to California news outlets.

“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

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.