Page last updated at 12:27 GMT, Monday, 8 December 2008

Barack Obama's coal conundrum

By David Shukman
Science & environment correspondent, BBC News, West Virginia


More than 400 mountain peaks so far have had their tops blasted off (Blasting footage: Chad A Stevens/milesfrommaybe productions)

As environment ministers from all over the world prepare for negotiations on climate change at Poznan in Poland this week, all eyes are on the future president of the United States.

Barack Obama has pledged to overturn George Bush's policies by pushing for deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

But he inherits an energy system dependent on a heavily polluting fuel - coal.

The first sight of the impact of US hunger for coal takes the breath away, here at Kayford in West Virginia, there's a yawning chasm where a mountain used to stand.

Open cast sites in Virginia
The coal is accessed by blasting the open cast site

And stretching a dozen barren miles to the horizon there's a series of hills with unnaturally flat tops - their peaks have been blasted off in a type of mining known as "mountaintop removal"

On a flight organised by the conservation charity SouthWings, pilot Susan Lapis tells me she's "horrified" to see how the quest for coal has devastated great tracts of landscape, some estimates suggest that more than 400 tops have been demolished so far.

The Appalachians are rich in black gold - they fuelled the US industrial revolution - and even now coal from mines like these helps generate no less than half the country's electricity.

And therein lies one of the toughest dilemmas facing Barack Obama: he promises action to save "a planet in peril" by introducing massive cuts in greenhouse gases, but the the US lights are kept on by burning one of the dirtiest of the fossil fuels.

open cast mining
Coal is seen as cheap and plentiful

Environmental campaigners like Matt Wasson of the group Appalachian Voices are cautiously optimistic that the "gut reaction" of the incoming president will be to turn against the most damaging forms of mining.

Climate scientists have long argued that at the very least no new coal-fired power stations should be built - and they're heartened by the Obama plans for tough new controls on emissions.

For the mining companies these are potentially unsettling times - billboards along the highway carry the assertive message, "Yes, Coal". But in reality they're quietly confident that the new administration will come to see the essential role of coal.

They point out that Barack Obama is himself from a coal mining state, Illinois, and that his campaign brought him to regions where thousands of people depend on coal for their livelihoods.

And, as Bill Raney of the West Virginia Mining Association puts it, why would anyone "overlook the geological blessing of coal?" It's American, indigenous, and plentiful at a time when energy independence is at a premium.

The Obama team's hope is that new technology will help find an answer to squaring the circle of how to harness such a polluting fuel without adding to global warming.


Carbon capture - experiments to make coal a cleaner energy

Clean coal

In a remote wood, on West Virginia's border with Pennsylvania, I'm shown an example of the kind of research that many are banking on - an experiment being set up by the mining giant Consol Energy to pump carbon dioxide underground.

The company's vice-president for R&D, Steve Winberg, explains how over the next two years, the gas will be forced into a deep well and a network of monitors will measure where it goes and, crucially, whether it stays put and does not seep out again.

Barack Obama himself has talked up the importance of systems to trap and store carbon dioxide - to be able to burn coal without the climate drawbacks. And, as he put it in one rally, if America can put a man on the Moon in the space of ten years, surely the country can quickly find a way to use coal cleanly.

A wind farm near the open cast site
Wind power is not seen as a viable alternative to coal
According to Paul Bledsoe of the National Commission on Energy Policy, new coal technologies are likely to receive more funding than any other type of low-carbon research "It'll be a top priority", he says.

Back at Kayford, I watch the demolition teams fill lines of holes with liquid explosive. Another layer of mountain is set to be destroyed and the coal extracted.

In another part of the state, a vast power station, fed by coal, belches dense smoke into the evening sky while on a hilltop nearby a line of wind turbines spins steadily.

America is at a crossroads in its choices about future energy, and the rest of the world is watching.

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