Both the American and Canadian press took a ‘Well, we’ll see,’ attitude toward the announcement yesterday that President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper will collaborate on clean-energy efforts.

Obama, however, made a very important point (and one that was largely overlooked in the press accounts) when he noted that before meaningful change is possible the U.S. must “complete our domestic debate and discussion around these issues.”

And we have not done that. Obama suggested an excellent case in point: What to do about the U.S.’s dependence on cheap, but dirty, coal, which generates more than half the country’s electricity and is one of the largest sources of greenhouse-gas emissions. “[I]f we can figure out how to capture the carbon, that would make an enormous difference in how we operate. Right now the technologies are at least not cost-effective,” Obama said. He might have added that developing carbon capture and storage (CCS) at a meaningful scale also faces serious engineering hurdles.

Many environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, think that America should not waste time with CCS – that any dollar spent on coal, a relic of energies past, is a dollar that could have gone to support (through R&D, tax incentives, etc.) renewable sources like wind, solar, or biofuels. Yet the demand for power is rising and many policy experts and economists say that it will be a long time until we can abandon coal without causing serious economic disruption, in terms of both electricity prices and the loss of coal jobs. CCS is the apparent solution, allowing us to reduce emissions from the burning of coal until it can be phased out.

Yet this country has suffered from such a muddled conversation about “clean coal” that nobody seems to know what to do next. Take, for instance, the coverage of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA’s) waste pond spill in Kingston, Tennessee, in December. Roughly a billion gallons of coal ash and water—mixed into a potentially toxic sludge laced with heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium—washed over 300 acres, destroying homes and running into the nearby Emory River.

Local media jumped on the story, covering the extent the damage, the response by the TVA and the Environmental Protection Agency, estimates of the various health risks, and issues surrounding waste ponds generally. The Nashville Tennessean, the Knoxville News Sentinel, and the Chattanooga Times Free Press, deserve particular credit, as do The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia, The Courier-Journal in Louisville, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for placing the story in a broader, regional context. A refrain throughout that reporting was the point that coal ash, leftover from burning, is proof that coal is (and always will be) dirty.

Over the course of the last year, and especially during coverage of the presidential election, a massive, industry-funded advertising campaign attempted to sell Americans on the idea of “clean coal.” A lot of journalists rightly labeled the term an oxymoron, but few took the extra step and differentiated the bad label from CCS, the potentially useful technology behind it.

Despite all the excellent local and regional spot reporting after the Tennessee spill (and one that followed it two weeks later at another TVA waste pond in Alabama), it took the national media a while to realize that the disaster was the perfect hook for a discussion about the future of coal and where technologies like CCS—touted by President Obama—will fit in. Indeed, it was at least two days after the spill before outlets like The New York Times, National Public Radio, and CNN even reported what had happened. Thereafter, those outlets produced some very good reporting. The Times’s Shaila Dewan and The Associated Press’s Dina Cappiello both had great pieces on the huge volume of unregulated coal ash “piling up” in ponds around the country, and how the Environmental Protection Agency has refused to designate the material as hazardous waste.

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