What does Coal have to do with the Swing States? - The Intrepid

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

What does Coal have to do with the Swing States?

On October 21st, PBS Frontline broadcast a documentary on Global Warming called “Heat.” Several of the segments of this program dealt with America’s use of energy. In a segment of the program entitled “America’s Addiction to Coal,” Time Magazine contributor Eric Pooley made an interesting point worth exploring.

“In 2008, you have to be for clean coal,” argues Pooley. “You can’t go to Indiana and Ohio and say ‘I want to do away with coal.’ You’re not going to win votes that way. There is an amazing correlation between being a swing state and being dependent on coal. You look at that map and you know why both candidates are extremely in favour of clean coal.”

For the most part, Pooley is correct.

Here is a list of the top ten states dependent on coal-fired power plants and a list of the top ten coal producers.

Top Ten States Dependent on Coal Fired Power Plants

  1. West Virginia – 97.5%
  2. Indiana – 94.8%
  3. Wyoming – 94.5%
  4. North Dakota – 93.5%
  5. Kentucky – 92.3%
  6. Ohio – 85.9%
  7. Missouri – 84.5%
  8. New Mexico – 80.1%
  9. Iowa – 75.6%
  10. Kansas – 73.1%

Top Ten Coal Producing States (in tons)
  1. Wyoming (338,900).
  2. West Virginia (158,257)
  3. Kentucky (130,688)
  4. Pennsylvania (74,619)
  5. Texas (49,498)
  6. Montana (38,352)
  7. Illinois (33,444)
  8. Virginia (32,834)
  9. North Dakota (31,270)
  10. Colorado (29,137)
  11. Indiana (27,965)

A swing state is usually defined as a state in which no major candidate has overwhelming support. However, instead of using poll numbers, lets define a swing state by the money spent.

Obama and McCain campaigns have spent the most money on television advertisements in the following ten states. (McCain has spent a lot of money in Michigan, but recently pulled his campaign out of the state. Although Obama continues to spend vast amounts of money in the state, I have not included it in the list, as it is no longer truly a swing state.)

States in which Candidates have spent the most Money (In no particular order)
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • Virginia
  • Nevada
  • North Carolina
  • Florida
  • Wisconsin
  • Missouri
  • Indiana
  • Colorado

Only Nevada, North Carolina, Florida, and Wisconsin do not rank among the top ten coal producers or coal power plant users. Although, North Carolina and Wisconsin both rely on coal fired plants for approximately 50% of their power. So, with the exception of Florida and Nevada, all of the swing states in this election have an interest in the future of coal.

On the surface, this might pose a problem for McCain and Obama. Both candidates agree that climate change is man-made and that the solution is to cut CO2 emissions. Coal produces the most CO2 in the U.S. In 2007, Coal fired powers plants generated 1,970 Tg of CO2, or 38.9% of the total U.S. CO2 emissions. But, it would be disastrous for either candidate to go after the coal industry, as the coal industry employs thousands of workers in these swing states.

To placate workers tied to the coal industry and environmentalists, both McCain and Obama have backed the development of clean coal power plants. Theoretically, clean coal power plants would capture carbon emissions and store these emissions kilometers underground. However, to date, no coal-fired power plant in the U.S. has tested this system and estimates indicate that the cost of retrofitting existing coal plants with carbon capture technology might drive up electricity costs. Researchers are not even sure that the CO2 will stay underground. Earthquakes or other seismic activity could cause the CO2 to rise to surface, potentially endangering human and animal life and undermining the efforts to decrease CO2 levels.

Clean coal technology may be unproven and far from economically feasible, but coal is king this election. Coal industry dollars and voters are a powerful lobby. For either candidate to turn their back on the coal industry would be political suicide.

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