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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Hillary Clinton Loves Her Some Coal

In an interview on West Virginia Public Radio this morning, Hillary Clinton revealed some pretty profound ignorance about the true costs of coal and especially about the destruction mountain top coal mining is wrecking on both communities and ecosystems in Appalachia. Give it a listen:

Sure sounds like Hillary has drunk the (sour) kool-aid being peddled by coal-front group "Americans for Balanced Energy Choices" (or ABEC, which might as well stand for "American Blowhards Excited about Coal"). Lets compare what Hillary is stumping and what the coal industry's PR machine has to say:

  • Clinton says: "Coal fits in very importantly because obviously, we have a great reserve of coal."

  • Coal industry astroturf campaign says: "Coal is our most abundant fuel. The United States has more coal than any other fuel. A quarter of all of the known coal in the entire world is here in America."

  • Clinton says: "We get more than 50% of our electricity from coal.

  • Coal industry PR machine spews: "Coal provides half of America’s electricity generation and more than twice as much as the next-highest contributor — nuclear."

  • Clinton says: "The challenge is how we are going to continue using coal and meet a lot of our environmental challenges. What I have said is that we'll have a new cap-and-trade system, and we'll take a lot of the money we raise from that cap-and-trade system and invest it in ... clean coal technology."

  • The coal industry reassures us: "We are committed to making coal a clean energy source. ... Today, energy companies are working with the federal government to develop, demonstrate, and deploy the next generation of advanced technologies that will make it possible to reduce regulated emissions even further (to near-zero levels) and capture and store greenhouse gases."

  • Clinton even calls for "subsidies to coal-to-liquids plants that meet [an unspecified] environmental standard."

    How does she feel about the prospects of "clean" coal?

    "I'm excited," she says, about starting on all this pro-coal work today. She even admonishes the Bush administration for not being enthusiastic enough about "clean" coal and for pulling the plug on the FutureGen demonstration project.

    And who wouldn't be excited about the magical transmutation of America's dirtiest fuel to the clean energy source of the future? (It doesn't hurt that you get to score some brownie points with one of America's strongest industries while you're at it...)

    The problem is there's no such thing as "clean" coal. Slightly-less-deadly, sure. "Climate friendly" coal is even possible. But clean?! Don't try to shovel me that!

    It's simply appalling to hear a presidential candidate talk to me about the wonders of "clean" coal while the coal industry levels mountains, razes forests and erases streams, poisons wells, threatens people's lives, and destroys communities through the practice of mountain top coal mining.

    Let me be perfectly clear: I am not opposed to carbon capture and storage. I do not believe, as some do, that the technology poses a dangerous risk. I do not think that the technical challenges are insurmountable to capture the greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants and burying them for centuries underground. I understand that CCS may be a necessary part of the response to the climate crisis.

    But am I "excited" about coal and CCS? Will CCS make coal "clean"? Will CCS do anything to stop the environmental destruction of coal extraction, particularly mountain top removal?

    NO! is the answer to all three of those questions, and it should be the answer that comes from our presidential candidates as well, especially ones who tout their environmental chops on the campaign trail (that'd be all three of them!).

    To be fair, Barak Obama talks up "clean" coal on the campaign trail just as much as Hillary (as I pointed out here).

    No matter how clean the emissions are coming out of the smokestack, you can't ignore the destruction wrought by coal extraction. Talking up how "clean" coal is, or can be, means you're either woefully ignorant (as Hillary seems to be), talking out of both sides of your mouth (as Obama gets dangerous close to doing), or purposefully trying to sell the American public on some "clean coal" snakeoil (as ABEC and the coal industry clearly is). You decide which is worse.

    Here's what truly appalls me about Hillary's interview though: she doesn't seem to have a clue about mountain top removal!

    When asked point blank about mountain top removal, an issue at the top of many West Virginians' minds (for obvious reason), Clinton equivocated, falling back on the age-old false dichotomy between environmental protection and economic development before closing with a good old dose of (completely unrealistic) wishful thinking...

    "I am concerned about it for all the reasons people state," she said, "but I think its a difficult question because of the conflict between the economic and environmental trade-off that you have here."

    She went on:
    "I’m not an expert. I don’t know enough to have an independent opinion, but I sure would like people who could be objective, understanding both the economic necessities and environmental damage to come up with some approach that would enable us to retrieve the coal but would enable us to do it in a way that wouldn’t damage the living standards and the other important qualities associated with people living both under the mountaintop and people who are along the streams. You know, maybe there is a way to recover those mountaintops once they have been stripped of the coal. You know, I think we’ve got to look at this from a practical perspective."
    "I'm not an expert"?! "I don't know enough to have an independent opinion"?! No shit!

    This answer wrong for so many reasons I don't even know where to start, and it evidences a complete lack of understanding about mountain top removal and the effect it is having on West Virginia and across Appalachia.

    Let's look at the economy vs. environment shlock. These two graphics (from Appalachian Voices) pretty well sums up the error in her argument:

    Basically, as mountain top removal has ramped up, coal mining jobs have disappeared, as machinery- and explosives-intensive mountain top surface mining replaced labor-intensive underground mining. In other words, as the environmental destruction ramped up, the economic benefits for Appalachian communities vanished, flipping that old environment/economy dichotomy right on it's head.

    It's no surprise then that the areas that this environmentally devastating practice occurs today are some of the poorest in the nation. If someone's economically benefiting from mountain top removal, it's certainly not the people of Appalachia.

    Finally, Clinton wistfully wonders "maybe there is a way to recover those mountaintops once they have been stripped of the coal." Well that'd sure be nice, Hillary! And while you're figuring out how you're going to turn this...

    ...back into this...

    ...I've got a magic elixir I'd like to sell you that'll guarantee that anyone who drinks it will suddenly win the presidential election.

    Come on Hillary! WTF?!

    [A hat tip to Dana from West Virginia for publicizing the interview]


    jcwinnie said...

    And, to top it off, Jesse, and I really hate telling you this: there is No Easter Bunny!

    Face it, none of the puppets are willing to challenge Big Oil or Ole King Coal. It is a semblance of democracy from now until November so that Big Media gets its fair share.

    Timothy B. Hurst said...


    How many times can a person say 'clean coal' in a four minute span?

    jhoff said...

    Hi Jesse, I was wondering if you could provide me with a contact address that I could reach you with. I work at Appalachian voices ( and we are working on creating a new blogging campaign. You can reach me at