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Monday, April 14, 2008

The Contradictory Politics of Coal

Many politicians are well known for speaking out of both sides of their mouths. That is, they contradict themselves on various issues.

An April 14 article in The Wall Street Journal looked at the challenge that some Democrats face on the issue of affordable, coal-generated power, while also favoring policies focused on climate change that will limit the use and/or raise the costs of coal.

The article highlights U.S. Senators Barack Obama (D-IL) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY), both running for president, and Virginia Governor Tim Kaine (D). Regarding Obama and Clinton, the Journal reported:

The race for the Democratic nomination hinges on a handful of states where coal is still king. That puts Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in a bind: how to attack global warming without threatening an industry that provides half the U.S.'s electricity and more than 80,000 mining jobs…

"Coal is going to remain a major player in American energy," Senator Clinton told the Pittsburgh Business Times last month.

"We are the Saudi Arabia of coal, and it could be a very important way for us to meet our long-term energy needs," Senator Obama told voters Wednesday in Levittown, Pa.

The candidates' comments reflect a broader challenge for Democrats, as efforts to build coal-fired plants pit Democrats in struggling rural areas against city and suburban dwellers worried about climate change.

Regarding Gov. Kaine:

In Virginia, Democrats at opposite ends of the state are clashing over a $1.8 billion coal-fired power plant proposed for the state's impoverished southwest corner. Governor Tim Kaine backs the plant even as he vows to cut greenhouse gas emissions -- a stance that has confounded many supporters in the state's affluent northern suburbs.

The article later adds:

Some, such as Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Edward Markey of Massachusetts, want to put an immediate halt to construction of any new coal-burning plants that lack technology to sequester carbon dioxide emissions. Many experts say that the technology is years from widespread commercial viability. The Energy Department withdrew its support for a project to test such technology in January after huge cost overruns.

Given real-world technology and economics, reducing carbon-dioxide emission in the name of fighting global warming will require either a cap-and-trade regulatory scheme or the imposition of carbon taxes. Either way, energy costs will rise dramatically – indeed, that is the point: to raise costs, so that energy consumption declines – and that spells big trouble for consumers, businesses and, despite the rhetorical gymnastics of Obama, Clinton and Kaine, coal.

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