Our opinion: The energy wars

The Obama administration’s announcement that the federal Environmental Protection Agency will limit carbon dioxide emissions from electric generation plants is being painted, most especially by Republicans, as an attack on the coal industry.

The rhetoric is predictable, conjuring images of tens of thousands of Pennsylvania coal miners and furloughed coal-fired power plant workers standing in unemployment lines and astronomical electric bills arriving to vex and impoverish the masses.

In America of the new millenium, virtually everything is characterized as an attack, whether the pronouncers are Republican or Democrat.

The nexus between carbon emissions and the coal industry is pretty solid, but it doesn’t have to be.

There are ways to make coal burn more cleanly and reduce its contribution to greenhouse gases. It requires expense, and, as we all know, no industry wants added expense if it can be avoided.

Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania’s governor find themselves on the front lines of what is brewing up to be a huge battle.

On the one hand, Gov. Tom Corbett has been the champion of the deep shale gas industry, which is producing incredible amounts of cheap and relatively clean fuel, to which more and more power companies are turning for both economic and forced environmental reasons. He has steadfastly opposed an extraction tax on shale gas and provided millions in incentives for the establishment of an ethane cracker plant near Pittsburgh that would rely on natural gas.

At the same time, his state is the fourth largest producer of coal in the nation and relies on coal for about a third of its electric generation.

If you asked Corbett to “talk” the tightrope between natural gas and coal, the politician in him would say there is room for -nay, Pennsylvania and American need – clean, cheap natural gas as well as coal. But, political speech or not, he would be right. It’s not a matter of one source of energy versus another, but rather a combination of sources toward the goals of clean air and energy independence.

There is no such thing as too many sources of energy. The trick is to reduce their degradation on the environment to a minimum.

A recent Associated Press story in this newspaper illustrated an example in Homer City, Pa., where one of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the state has been cleaned up. No, it wasn’t abandoned; thousands of employees weren’t thrown out of work. It was improved.

It can be done, although whether its goal of reducing carbon emissions by a third within the next 15 years is realistic may very well be a matter for debate and compromise.