« Return to this article

Know the West

On the ballot: "Clean" coal and moose stew

"In 30 seconds, I can have one of those cut out of a 4Runner and get a couple hundred bucks."

 --Josh Sorenson, an Ogden, Utah, junked-auto dealer, on turning over a catalytic converter (which contains palladium and platinum) in this age of sky-high metal prices and rising metal theft. From the Salt Lake Tribune.

Updated Sept. 22, 2008

Not far from Colorado's sprawling natural gas fields and the scissoring turbines of the Ponnequin wind farm, Democrats spent their convention in Denver stumping to please, well, just about everybody. Their efforts revealed the underlying tension in the party, thanks to a platform that includes not only plenty of renewable energy (the promise of 5 million new green-collar jobs was a common refrain) and ambitious carbon cap-and-trade goals, but also hefty investment in (ever-elusive) "clean" coal (the vast majority of which comes from mines in the Interior West), along with more natural gas and oil drilling. "We need them all to create a strong American energy system, a system built on American innovation," Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer told a packed house awaiting Hillary Clinton's speech at the Pepsi Center.

Facing the prospect of federal carbon regulations regardless of who wins the presidency, the coal industry has spent heavily to ensure their product's prominent spot in both party's platforms. The nonprofit front group American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy shelled out a rumored $2 million promoting coal at the Democratic National Convention (meanwhile, environmental groups passed out chunks of coal painted green to highlight "the only way they've found to make coal green"), and the coal industry has contributed more than $2.3 million to federal candidates' campaigns so far this election cycle, with more than 32 percent (the highest proportion since 1994) going to Democrats, according to Opensecrets.org.

Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader isn't buying into the coal craze, though, and he chose an Aug. 28 press conference in Wyoming  -- whose Powder River Basin provides 40 percent of the nation's supply  -- to say that he believes future generations will regard coal-fired electricity as "a crime against humanity."

Nader's choice of venue may not have been politically savvy, but his message reflects the festering backlash against the inexpensive, abundant fuel. Utilities in green-leaning states like Washington and New Mexico have gotten squeamish about buying and building new coal-fired power, thanks to mounting pressure from constituents and laws requiring them to increase clean power in their portfolios. Even in rural Sevier County, Utah, a citizens' group concerned about a proposed coal plant successfully landed an initiative on the local ballot that would require voter approval before the county can issue the permits needed for such projects. And after legal prodding from New York's attorney general, the massive utility Xcel Energy made a precedent-setting agreement in August to disclose to its investors all the financial risks associated with building new coal-fired power plants  -- including those posed by mounting legal challenges, global warming regulations, and even the impacts of climate change, such as drought.

Meanwhile, Republican presidential nominee John McCain upped his Western cred when he picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. But even a rifle-packing, hunt-loving, socially conservative lady gov whose favorite food is "moose stew after a day of snowmachining," according to an interview with Vogue magazine, may face an uphill battle winning over conservation-minded sportsmen, given her support for drilling in sensitive areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and her failure to acknowledge humans' role in climate change. The National Wildlife Federation recently released a poll showing that hunters and anglers, a group that is predominantly Republican or independent, might happily lean left if it means more renewable energy, real global warming policy and better protection for wildlife habitat.

Despite that swing factor, both conventions sidelined discussions of oil and gas impacts on the West's wildlife and landscape. Only 50 or so folks heard Wyoming native Walt Gasson, a sportsman and a Republican, eloquently sum up his anger about the breakneck pace of drilling at a panel discussion in Denver during the DNC. "Not a week goes by now that I don't hear from someone in that redneck, red-state homeland of mine about some place that's lost -- a place to fish, a place to hunt, a place to camp  -- that's been converted to an industrial zone," he said. "They ask me," Where am I going to take my kids fishing? Where am I going to take them hunting?' I'm running out of answers to give them."