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Not Coming Clean on Coal

A McCain-Palin ad claims the Obama-Biden ticket opposes clean coal. Not true.


The McCain-Palin campaign is airing radio ads in four states claiming that the Obama-Biden ticket "oppose[s] clean coal." That's false:

  • Obama's energy plan, which he began promoting well over a year ago, calls for investing in "low emissions coal plants" and creating "5 'first-of-a-kind' commercial scale coal-fired plants with carbon capture and sequestration." His position in support of clean coal has been clear.
  • The ad's claim rests solely on a remark Biden made when questioned while shaking hands on a rope line in Ohio. Biden said, "We’re not supporting clean coal." The campaign says he meant something else entirely. Regardless, it's Obama's energy plan that the ticket is running on.


The McCain-Palin campaign and the Republican National Committee are running radio ads in four states, claiming that the Obama-Biden ticket "oppose[s] clean coal." Not according to Obama's energy plan, which he first began promoting back in May 2007. The ads are airing in the big coal states of Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

McCain-Palin 2008 Radio Ad: "Clean Coal"

Announcer: Clean Coal is important to America. And to Pennsylvania. For Pennsylvanians, coal means thousands of jobs. Economic growth. More affordable electricity. For America, coal means energy independence. And clean coal means cleaner air. But Obama-Biden and their liberal allies oppose clean coal. Listen to Joe Biden.

Biden: "No coal plants here in America". "We're not supporting clean coal".

Announcer: No coal plants in America? No jobs in Pennsylvania? No energy independence for America? It's no surprise. After all, Obama-Biden and their liberal allies opposed off-shore drilling. Congressional liberals blocked off-shore drilling putting special interests, before our interests. Obama-Biden and their liberal allies. Too risky for our jobs, our economic future. Paid for by McCain-Palin 2008 and the Republican National Committee.

McCain: I'm John McCain and I approved this message.

Not According to Obama

The scripts of the radio ads are identical except for the state named in each of the four versions. They say "Obama-Biden and their liberal allies oppose clean coal." Yet that's completely contrary to Obama's actual energy plan, posted on his Web site, and the statements he's made about the plan.

When people talk about "clean coal" technology, they're talking about a system for capturing the carbon gas emitted from coal-burning power plants, transporting it to a storage site and pumping it underground, where the gas would stay permanently. The technology won't be available anytime soon. But the Obama-Biden energy plan says it will put money into advancing "clean coal" technology, as well as other alternative energies. It says Obama and Biden will invest $150 billion over 10 years to promote renewable energy, energy efficiency, biofuels, commercial plug-in hybrids, a new digital electricity grid, and to "invest in low emissions coal plants."

The Obama-Biden plan also includes more detail on what the Democrats would do for clean coal, including pushing for the creation of "5 'first-of-a-kind' commercial scale coal-fired plants with carbon capture and sequestration":

Obama-Biden energy plan: Develop and Deploy Clean Coal Technology. Carbon capture and storage technologies hold enormous potential to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions as we power our economy with domestically produced and secure energy. As a U.S. Senator, Obama has worked tirelessly to ensure that clean coal technology becomes commercialized. An Obama administration will provide incentives to accelerate private sector investment in commercial scale zero-carbon coal facilities. In order to maximize the speed with which we advance this critical technology, Barack Obama and Joe Biden will instruct DOE to enter into public private partnerships to develop 5 “first-of-a-kind” commercial scale coal-fired plants with carbon capture and sequestration. 

The McCain-Palin energy plan, too, calls for speeding up the development of clean coal technologies, proposing a $2 billion per year investment until 2024.

Biden Missed the Memo?

The support for the ad's claim rests not on the candidates' actual energy plan, but solely on a comment Biden made to a woman in Maumee, Ohio, when she asked him about clean coal versus wind and solar. While shaking hands on the rope line at a campaign event, this exchange occurred:

Woman: Wind and solar are flourishing here in Ohio, why are you supporting clean coal? Biden: We’re not supporting clean coal. Guess what? China’s building two every week, two dirty coal plants, and it’s polluting the United States. It’s causing people to die.
Woman: So will you support wind and solar …
Biden: Absolutely, before anybody did. The first guy to introduce a global warming bill was me, 22 years ago. The first guy to support solar energy was me, 26 years ago. It came out of Delaware. But guess what? China’s going to burn 300 years of bad coal unless we figure out how to clean their coal up. Because it’s going to grow in your lungs and there’s nothing we can do about it. No coal plants here in America. Build them if they’re going to build them over there, make them clean, because they’re killing you.


Obama-Biden campaign spokesman David Wade later said, in responding to McCain campaign criticism of the remark, that Biden was comparing what China was doing to what we should do about coal pollution here in the U.S. "Senator Biden’s point is that China is building coal plants with outdated technology every day, and the United States needs to lead by developing clean coal technologies," Wade said.

We're not sure that entirely explains Biden's comments – which, to our ears, are at odds with not only Obama's position but Biden's own energy proposal made last fall when he was running for president. Biden supported a more than $5 billion investment in research of alternative and renewable energy, including "carbon capture and sequestration technologies that will allow us to use coal cleanly." But regardless of Biden's remark on the rope line, it's Obama policy proposals that the ticket is running on and would promote if the Democrats win the White House.

And Obama has been quite clear in supporting clean coal, both in his published energy plan (which now carries Biden's name, too) and his public statements. Obama mentioned the as-yet-to-be-developed technology in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, saying as president he would "invest in clean coal technology." In 2007, Obama sponsored an amendment to a budget resolution to add $200 million for Department of Energy work on clean coal technology. (It was approved by unanimous consent.)

What Is "Clean Coal"?
In a press release announcing this ad, the McCain-Palin campaign says that coal mining is responsible for 111,500 jobs in the four states in which the radio ad is airing. More than half of our energy for electric utilities comes from coal, so there's great interest in advancing clean coal technologies.

We're not there yet, though. Developing workable technology will take a lot of money. So much money that the federal government pulled the plug this year on a project in Illinois, which would have researched and tested clean coal technologies, including capturing and burying carbon, and changing coal to a gas, which can be burned more cleanly. The cost of the project, which was announced by the energy secretary in 2003, had nearly doubled from initial projections to $1.8 billion, according to a May New York Times article on the obstacles clean coal faces. The Department of Energy has restructured the project to support several smaller demonstration plants and has issued a call for proposals.

The Electric Power Research Institute, a utility consortium, has set what its president called a "very aggressive" target date of 2020 to have completed large-scale tests of the technology, according to the Times. The institute "estimated that it would take as long as 15 years to go from starting a pilot plant to proving the technology will work."

Regardless of the hurdles, utilities, coal companies and certain voters in coal-mining states strongly support efforts to develop the technology. So do many politicians, including both the Democratic and Republican candidates for president.

–- by Lori Robertson

Update, Oct. 10: These radio ads are paid for by the McCain-Palin campaign and the Republican National Committee. We've updated the analysis to reflect that.


Barack Obama: New Energy for America.” BarackObama.com, accessed 30 Sept. 2008. “The Lexington Project.”

JohnMcCain.com, accessed 30 Sept. 2008. YouTube video. "Joe Biden on Renewables and Coal in Maumee, OH."

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BarackObama.com, 7 May 2007. Obama, Barack. Acceptance speech at Democratic National Committee, transcript. New York Times, 28 Aug. 2008.

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U.S. Department of Energy. Net Generation by Energy Source: Electric Utilities, 1994 through May 2008. Energy Information Administration, 16 Sept. 2008, accessed 30 Sept. 2008.

U.S. Department of Energy. "Abraham Announces Pollution-Free Power Plant of the Future" press release, 27 Feb. 2003.

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