Coal’s Curtain Call

A late spate of news as the campaigns wind down

This morning, my colleague Liz Cox Barrett posted a brief comment about Kevin Drum’s argument that the press has “ignored” the presidential candidates’ cap-and-trade plans.

Drum’s explanation is that the candidates haven’t been “attacking each other” on their plans to put mandatory limits on the carbon dioxide emissions that lead to global warming. While that is certainly true, there is also another factor at play. In a recent column about the energy beat’s novel importance in this race, I noted that, “As the campaign wore on, the candidates became loath to mention cap-and-trade, with its implication of cost, and shifted to talk of investment in renewable energy, with its connotation of growth and ‘green jobs.’” There have been plenty of attacks between the candidates on their respective proposals to promote individual energy sources (usually in the name of American independence from foreign oil), and that includes a conspicuous amount of attention paid to conventional fossil fuels.

Energy-wise, the last few days of this monumental campaign focused on coal, the United States’ cheapest, but dirtiest power source. At his New York Times Dot Earth blog, Andrew Revkin had an interesting recap yesterday of the McCain campaign’s last-minute attempt to criticize Barack Obama based on a comment that the Illinois senator had made to the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle last January (video of that meeting included). Referring to cap-and-trade, Obama told the board, “So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can; it’s just that it will bankrupt them because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.”

Even Climate Progress’s Joe Romm, an ardent Obama supporter when it comes to energy and the environment, wrote that it was an “inartful choice of words.” Indeed, the McCain camp and media outlets like Drudge Report have attempted to spin the comment as proof that Obama is actually striving to pull the rug out from under the coal industry. Of course, that is not true.

In his Dot Earth post, Revkin linked to a well-done article by The Raw Story, an online news outlet, from yesterday. The piece, by Nick Juliano, reported that the United Mine Workers of America, which endorses Obama, came to the senator’s defense on Monday, saying that the McCain campaign’s attempt to spin the coal quote was a “twisting of the truth.” The Washington Post also picked up on McCain’s last-minute effort to claim the mantle of “coal booster,” writing that, “the candidate who once spoke repeatedly of the need to curb climate change now devotes his speeches to touting the need to boost oil and coal production, two of the biggest contributors to global warming, while campaigning in those coal-producing states.”

While the Post is correct that John McCain has emphasized fossil fuels production (not to mention nuclear) much more than Obama has during this race, there is some evidence that when it comes to coal, Obama is the “booster.” The Associated Press had an article late last week about McCain’s desire to ban mountaintop removal coal mining; Obama expresses “serious concerns” about the practice, but has “stopped short” of calling for a ban. The article had some nice details, such as mentioning the fact that, “The president names top officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, all three of which play crucial regulatory roles in the coal industry.” Ultimately, however, it’s best line is the simple conclusion that “The next president’s role in shaping the nation’s energy policy is not lost on anyone.”

That’s certainly true of the coal industry. Last Friday, the AP had another very well conceived article about the president and what’s left of FutureGen, the vaunted plan for a carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) demonstration plant that the Department of Energy killed last winter. I have, on a number of occasions, criticized he press for not paying more attention to CCS technology given that both presidents have promised Americans that it will play a big part in their energy future. As it turns out, FutureGen is not completely dead, but group’s chief executive told the AP, “We’re awaiting the change of administration, I’ll put it that way.”

The next president’s plan for CCS is a story that journalists must urgently explore in the weeks after the election, but there are many other energy-related matters to attend to as well. Eventually, and perhaps quickly, cap-and-trade will resurface, especially as the United Nations-sponsored climate talks in Poland (part of a process designed to produce a successor to the Kyoto Protocol) draw closer.

Whatever happens, tomorrow is likely the start of a new era in energy policy for the United States. And the reporting the follows with it, in the week and months to come, is going to be even more important. Journalists won’t have to worry about two candidates’ willingness to attack each other on the issue and rhetoric must be dispensed with. To repeat: The next president’s role in shaping the nation’s energy policy – and, I would add, the importance of that policy — is not lost on anyone.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.