Romney's ‘clean coal’ devotion

The first US presidential debate showed us Mitt Romney would like to “continue burning clean coal,” which begs the question: when did we start? Meanwhile, climate change didn’t get a mention – by either candidate.

“(How about) ‘smart coal’?”
“What’s smart about it?”
“We get to keep selling it.”
-The Hollowmen, ABC

US Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has again laid down his energy policy during his first debate with President Barack Obama and it is a simple one: ‘oil, gas and coal – as much as we can get, from wherever we can get it in America’.

In an at times passionate, occasionally jovial but largely monotonous debate, during which Romney was widely considered to have come out stronger, the energy battle was largely missed. With the economy and ‘Obamacare’ in the spotlight this was no surprise, but both candidates did touch on energy policy while ignoring climate change altogether.

Obama predictably stuck to his ‘all of his above’ approach, with strong emphasis given to renewables.

“Oil and natural gas production are higher than they've been in years,” he informed an estimated viewing audience of 50 million people, in America alone. “But I also believe that we've got to look at the energy source of the future, like wind and solar and biofuels, and make those investments.”

Contrast the position with unabashed coal fan Romney, who only talked up the need to boost production of oil, gas and coal.

“Energy is critical, and the president pointed out correctly that production of oil and gas in the US is up. But not due to his policies. In spite of his policies,” he contended.

“Mr President, all of the increase in natural gas and oil has happened on private land, not on government land. On government land, your administration has cut the number of permits and licenses in half. If I'm president, I'll double them, and also get the – the oil from offshore and Alaska. And I'll bring that pipeline in from Canada.

“And, by the way, I like coal. I'm going to make sure we can continue to burn clean coal. People in the coal industry feel like it's getting crushed by your policies.”

The claim “we can continue to burn clean coal” begs a pertinent question: when did we start doing that?

Was that when we began burning ‘green coal’ and ‘smart coal’?

Funding is sensibly being directed to work out the feasibility of making coal cleaner, but to imply an age of clean coal is upon us, or even close, is firmly on the deceptive side of misleading.

$90 billion on green energy?

Romney declared he was “all in favour of green energy” but bemoaned the use of “$90 billion to fund green energy” – a statement on the loose side of the truth no matter how many times it is repeated (three, in the case of the debate).

“In one year, you provided $90 billion in breaks to the green energy world. Now, I like green energy as well, but that's about 50 years' worth of what oil and gas receives …

“But – but don't forget, you put $90 billion – like 50 years worth of (oil tax) breaks – into solar and wind, to Solyndra and Fisker and Tesla and Ener1. I mean, I had a friend who said, you don't just pick the winners and losers; you pick the losers. All right? So – so this is not – this is not the kind of policy you want to have if you want to get America energy-secure.”

Firstly, the claim “in one year” is illusory. They may have been announced in one year – in fact they were announced in one day – but the funds certainly weren’t dished out within 12 months. Soon after Obama moved into the White House the funding plan was announced, three years later it still hasn’t all been distributed.

Most importantly the $90 billion for clean energy initiatives doesn’t just go into wind and solar, nor even the bulk of it. Instead, it was spread around to include areas like smart meters, energy efficiency measures, train lines and clean coal research.

The breakdown is as such:

-- $29 billion for energy efficiency;

-- $21 billion for renewable generation;

-- $10 billion for grid modernisation to develop the so-called ‘smart grid’;

-- $6 billion to support domestic manufacturing of advanced batteries;

-- $18 billion for traditional transit and high-speed rail;

-- $3 billion to fund research, development, and demonstration of carbon capture and sequestration technologies;

-- $3 billion to invest in the “science, technology, and workforce needed for a clean energy economy”; and

-- $2 billion in clean energy equipment manufacturing tax credits (which partners with private investment).

In other words the $90 billion is a combination of a number of policies that will make the US a cleaner economy, and is designed to clean up the past, while looking to the future. Further, much of the $21 billion for renewable generation hasn’t even made it to companies’ coffers yet, as the Solyndra failure made policymakers increasingly cautious about funding.

Ironically, the $90 billion of “green energy” funding that Romney is so critical of actually offers billions to his favourite technology – with $3 billion directed to CCS, 'clean coal’s' great hope.

The presidential candidates may not have spoken much about energy policy, but they certainly left plenty to talk about.