McCain, Palin Ticket Doesn’t Really Dig Coal

Desperate to score points in a crucial state where they are in the double-digit dumps, the Republican McCain-Palin presidential ticket rolled out their heartfelt support for “clean coal technologies” at a rally in Scranton, Pa., this week. Vice Presidential Nominee Sarah Palin appeared in full throat. Her homage to coal, of course, came despite McCain’s announced goal to deploy 45 new nuclear generating plants by 2030.

The only problem with the Palin appearance is that Scranton is “hard-coal” country. That’s anthracite coal, a high BTU-low sulfur product that isn’t relevant in the 21st century. Most of it was mined out in the 19th and 20th century to heat homes. What’s left isn’t economically significant. The U.S. Department of Energy describes domestic anthracite as “very rare in the United States,” as opposed to bituminous coal, which is plentiful, both in Appalachia, the Midwest, and the Rocky Mountain west.

Scranton is Democratic Veep nominee Joe Biden’s home turf. He grew up here, son of a blue-collar family, and later moved to Delaware, where he became a U.S. senator. The Pennsylvania region is traditionally – although not reliably –  Democratic (and was the home ground of the radical Molly McGuire coal labor union movement of the 1870s). Coal was once king, and still has a hold on the hearts and memories of the folks in the region. But coal has little economic purchase today.

Coal hasn’t been a significant economic factor in northeastern Pennsylvania for close to 40 years. The attempt of the Republican ticket to link anthracite coal and Republican politics makes little local sense. National Republican political strategists, it seems, can’t distinguish hard from soft coal.

At a rally in Scranton, GOP Veep nominee Palin said, “Drill, baby, drill and mine, baby, mine, yes!” She drew cheers from a Republican crowd. She claimed, according to the New York Times, that a Republican clean coal plan “is going to create over 30,000 new jobs where they are needed most, in places like Ohio, West Virginia and right here in Pennsylvania.”
Maybe. But her policy prescription meant little in local terms, where unemployment is a big issue. There won’t be any mining in northeastern Pennsylvania. There’s nothing to mine. No developers will build coal-fired plants of any flavor, clean, green, or otherwise. So there are no jobs for the region in the McCain-Palin plan.

Hard coal is relatively clean, very expensive to mine, and a bad candidate for “clean coal technology,” whatever that means. Sorry, Sarah, your rhetoric is entirely empty here.

Nor is anthracite a significant contributor to U.S. coal production. It is not a major fuel for power generation and only a tiny contributor to U.S. energy production. Palin’s sense of geography and geology was dramatically skewed, although I doubt she or her handlers knew it.

Palin’s clean coal call would make more sense at the further western reaches of the Keystone State, where bituminous coal has long been king. One of the legendary coal seams – one which lends itself to “clean coal” gasification – is Pittsburgh No. 9. That’s a long way from Scranton and its largely mined-out anthracite deposits.

It the West, it’s soft coal, or bituminous and subbituminous, far better fuel for conventional power plants and plants that combine coal gasification with combined-cycle gas-fired generation. That’s what “clean coal technology” is all about; it’s not about anthracite coal.

But I guess we shouldn’t expect anything like technical accuracy and precision in our political candidates. For the Palin propagandists, Pennsylvania is Pennsylvania, and coal is coal, and the state’s electoral votes are up for grabs.

I wonder if the Republican strategists have any idea about the differences among eastern high-Btu, high sulfur bituminous coals and the low-Btu, low-sulfur products of the Powder River Basin? Do they care?

If they achieve power – an unlikely prospect today – the McCainites will have to learn a lot about coal if they wish to implement rational energy policy.

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