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Commentary: Candidates should come clean on coal

  • Story Highlights
  • Jeff Biggers: Both campaigns are using coal to pander to swing-state voters
  • Biggers: McCain, Obama hold out promise of "clean coal" jobs
  • Coal isn't clean and may never be clean, and new jobs scarce, Biggers says
  • Biggers: Use Appalachia for clean energy initiatives like wind and solar.
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By Jeff Biggers
Special to CNN
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Editor's Note: Jeff Biggers, author of "The United States of Appalachia," is at work on a cultural history of coal. Biggers has been a commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition and contributes to the Huffington Post.

Author Jeff Biggers says both campaigns are inflating the potential of coal to help swing-state economies.

MACOMB, Illinois (CNN) -- The Wall Street crisis notwithstanding, coal continues to embroil the presidential campaign into knots unlike any other issue in the swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.

Take a look at the backflips by both campaigns in the last several weeks:

Jumping on a not-in-my-backyard "clean coal" gaffe by Sen. Joe Biden, the McCain campaign released a wildly misleading ad accusing Sen. Barack Obama of not supporting coal. (And this just days after United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts turned red in the face with a stirring endorsement of Obama in the southwest Virginia coalfields.)

When Sen. John McCain casually told a voter in Florida that he didn't support mountaintop removal in Appalachia -- the controversial process of blowing mountains to bits to strip the coal seams -- his own campaign advisers hurriedly launched a Coalition to Protect Coal Jobs.

While not taking a clear-cut stand on the same mountaintop removal issue, the Obama campaign countered with a Clean Coal Jobs Task Force, as if upping the ante on coal.

As an old coal balladeer might ask: Which side are these candidates on?

The answer: Both candidates are on the wrong side. In one of the sorriest panders for votes, invoking a 20th century pound-on-the-chest lie that coal means jobs, neither candidate is brave enough to come clean and offer himself as the messenger for a 21st century vision for the coalfields of central Appalachia.

Funny thing is: Voters in these swing states already know the truth. Coal is on its way out, not its way in. Sure, new coal plants are being built, but scores of coal-fired plants have been canceled across the country.

The majority of Americans recognize the reality of global warming, and the fact that coal contributes more than 40 percent of our carbon dioxide emissions. Cecil Roberts and the United Mine Workers, who represent a minority of the coal miners at work today, should understand this and seize the moment to organize the United Clean Energy Workers of America.

Because the truth is: Coal is not clean, has not been clean and may never be clean, and a growing number of residents in the swing "coal states" of Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Virginia would like to be liberated from this 150-year-old coal burden that has derailed any diversified economy or society.

Almost everyone in those regions has an uncle or grandpa who died, like more than 105,000 Americans, from black lung disease; more than 10,000 coal miners died from black lung in the last decade. That's three Americans a day.

And the "clean coal" that Obama and McCain promise is simply a cruel ruse: Neither candidate, if asked, could honestly tell the American public about the feasibility or implementation date for a carbon capture and storage plan for coal-fired plants on a nationwide utility scale, the projected cost (most likely in the trillions), or the actual safety ramifications. Because no one knows.

According to a report recently released by the GAO, federal agencies have not begun to address the "full range of issues that would require resolution for commercial-scale CCS deployment."

The truth is that "clean coal" is a recycled phrase from the coal boom days of the 1970s oil crisis and has been invoked for more than a century.

As one young Obama activist from southern Ohio recently e-mailed me: "Why is it that the rest of the country gets green jobs and a high-tech future, and then the candidates come here and say, 'and for you, Appalachia, here's another generation of coal, or worse, nuclear waste that has been refused in the West?'"

He's not alone. In a recent poll released by the Opinion Research Corp., the majority of West Virginian voters supported energy independence through wind and solar power over coal.

In fact, one of the fastest growing and inspiring grassroots movements recently sprang out of the mining communities in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia, when a community organization that included coal miners, the Coal River Mountain Watch, proposed a wind farm over an impending strip mine.

According to a coalition of community organizations in the central Appalachian region, the Alliance for Appalachia, the candidates might do well to campaign in the clouds, not on the ground, in order to break this impasse between dirty coal of the past and clean energy for the future.

Calling for McCain and Obama to take a joint airplane ride across the decimated region, these Appalachians think the presidential campaign might find new ground, and a new definition of "clean coal," by flying over 470 mountains, adjacent historic communities and 1,000 miles of streams that have been wiped out with millions of tons of explosives.

Perhaps both candidates might see why West Virginia, where coal mining employment has dropped in many counties by more than 90 percent in the last decades because of mechanization and strip mining, ranks 50th in Forbes Magazine's best states to do business.

So, presidential candidates, stop denying the truth, like politicians in the past who denied black lung, acid rain and global warming, and stop babbling about "clean coal" to people who have paid the true price for coal's dirty legacy. It's an insult.

Instead, make this presidential campaign historic and let central Appalachia be the staging ground for a New Green Deal of clean energy jobs and initiatives.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

All About John McCainBarack ObamaNational Mining Association

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