Like it or not, we’re going to be burning coal for some time to come and, ultimately, some CCS is better than no CCS. So the question is, if Barack Obama and John McCain believe so mightily in this technology, what do they think about this pilot plant in Germany? According to their respective Web sites, Obama wants to build give five commercial-scale plants and McCain would “commit $2 billion Annually to advancing clean coal technologies.”

That’s not enough information. Last year, the Department of Energy killed FutureGen, the domestic plan for a zero-emissions coal plant, when it ran way over budget. What are the candidates’ plans for avoiding a similar breakdown? Moreover, the campaigns aren’t the only outlets pushing CCS. Prime time election coverage features a non-stop repetition of ads touting “clean coal.” In June, BusinessWeek reported that the coal industry’s marketing and lobbying campaign totaled $40 million. The import is clear, the piece continues:

With coal-rich swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia critical to the Presidential race, both Barack Obama and John McCain have endorsed the idea that coal is well on its way to becoming a benign energy source. Obama’s primary campaign in Kentucky sent out flyers in May showing the smiling Democratic candidate, a coal barge, and the message “Barack Obama believes in clean Kentucky coal.”

The catch is that for now—and for years to come—“clean coal” will remain more a catchphrase than a reality. Despite the eagerness of the coal and power industries to sanitize their image and the desire of U.S. politicians to push a healthy-sounding alternative to expensive foreign oil and natural gas, clean coal is still a misnomer.

Precisely because of all that bloviating from industry and the campaigns, American journalists should have given more attention to the new CCS coal plant in Germany. Although it’s a continent away, it represents a tangible step toward the technology they’ve been promised. According to www.followthecoalmoney.org, Obama has received just over $17,100 from the coal industry since 2000, compared to McCain’s $51,850. Journalists have done a decent job of covering the coal industry’s influence on the presidential campaigns — USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Associated Press are among those that have weighed in. But journalists can always to do more and part of that involves following the technology as well.

 

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.