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Post Partisan
Posted at 01:42 PM ET, 08/16/2012

On coal and wind, Romney and Obama forget substance


In a time in which America needs to meet the competing goals of greening its economy and ensuring a steady supply of affordable energy, which candidate has the right plan to power the economy? Neither.

Yet more evidence came this week as President Obama and Mitt Romney campaigned in the Midwest, both substituting shamelessness for substance.

In Iowa, Obama attacked Romney for wanting to eliminate a tax subsidy for wind farms. Wind generates about a fifth of Iowa’s electricity, and the resulting revenues have convinced even Rep. Steve King (R), perhaps the state’s most obnoxious conservative, to support continuing the billion-dollar-a-year federal handout , which is scheduled to lapse at the end of the year.

Except that the tax subsidy — known as the production tax credit or PTC — is an expensive policy with all the sophistication of a neanderthal. It gives wind operations a flat credit for every kilowatt-hour of electricity they produce — regardless of whether the grid needs it at any given moment or whether those operations have done anything to bring down costs. The consequence is a subsidy that demands no cost-saving innovation of the wind industry and fails to account for the real world of running a power grid. And Americans’ tax dollars and utility payments are paying for the excess costs.

Even ardent environmentalists will admit that the PTC is a boneheaded way to subsidize wind, and that there are much better green policies on the shelf. But you wouldn’t have known that from the president’s philippic describing how Romney wants to kill wind power and doesn’t understand the economy of the future.

Still, at least Obama wants to move in the right direction — reducing dependence on the dirtiest of fossil fuels — even if he favors unnecessarily squandering national wealth in the process. Romney, by contrast, has become shockingly retrograde.

In front of the Ohio Valley’s Century Mine, Romney accused Obama of waging a “war on coal.” “We have 250 years of coal,” Romney said. “Why in the heck wouldn’t we use it?” For starters, coal is about the worst of the worst on greenhouse emissions, which contribute to global warming. But let’s set that aside. There’s also the toxic mixture of fine particles and gases that coal-fired power plants produce, exacting a real but hard-to-quantify toll on Americans’ quality of life in the form of asthma, coronary disease, heart attacks and early death. Coal kills a lot more people than nuclear power ever has. Just transitioning to cleaner — and, now, cheaper — natural gas would do a lot of good.

And what about “clean coal”? Both Romney and Obama have promoted some form of the idea, but that’s just more pandering. The technology hasn’t been proven to work at the scale we need without costing massive amounts of money.

No politician should be saying anything nice about coal. America still depends on it, but that’s not a good thing. Romney’s ringing endorsement of burning it for the next 250 years is horrifying — both for what such a future would mean for the planet, and for the lengths Romney is going to appeal to the naked self-interest of a group of voters in a swing state.

Perhaps the most dishonest thing about how American politicians have used energy policy in the last couple years is that they turn to the subject whenever they want to seem very serious. Vote for me — I’m going to keep the lights on and the economy humming, and the other guy is too blinded by ideology to recognize the very realistic policy I’m proposing, which is not-at-all painful to you. But energy policy involves lots of confusing details and tradeoffs, affecting Americans’ wallets and health. Instead of dealing forthrightly with the tension between caring for the environment and keeping power bills down, they propose tossing cash at wind without mentioning the costs, or burning more coal without mentioning global warming. Politicians’ self-righteousness on energy just makes their small proposals seem even more pathetic.

By  |  01:42 PM ET, 08/16/2012

 
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