By Frances Beinecke
Mention Kentucky to most Americans and three things quickly spring to mind: Thoroughbred horse racing, the Colonel's chicken and coal.
The first two aren't likely to spark a squabble when Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan face off in their Thursday debate at Centre College in Danville. The coal debate, though, has already begun.
In campaign ads and on the stump, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and his running mate, Ryan, have accused President Barack Obama and Biden of waging a "war on coal," through the administration's efforts to protect our environment and health.
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But is it really that simple? Is this a serious charge, or a bumper sticker? The answers are important — to the people of Kentucky, and to the nation.
The Bluegrass State is our nation's third-largest coal producer. Kentucky gets 93 percent of its electricity from coal, and its citizens pay a heavy price: the state leads the nation in toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants.
Of the seven dirtiest plants in the country, in fact, three are in Kentucky, including the worst, the Tennessee Valley Authority's Paradise plant. In 2010, it belched out nearly 8 million pounds of mercury, sulfur dioxide, hydrochloric acid and other harmful chemicals, in addition to carbon and soot.
The people of Kentucky deserve better — and they're working on it. Through its Center for Applied Energy Research, the University of Kentucky is partnering with the U.S. Department of Energy to develop solutions to our energy challenges.
New ways to cut pollution from coal-fired power plants. Renewable alternatives to fossil fuels. And exciting new battery technologies aimed at advancing our use of wind turbines, solar power and electric cars.
Together, wind turbines and natural gas now provide nearly 35 percent of our nation's electricity, roughly the same as coal. Some 160,000 Americans go to work each day building or maintaining wind and solar power systems. That's twice as many as the coal mining industry employs.
Amid this kind of opportunity, challenge and change, Biden and Ryan have the chance to lay out their visions for our energy future. They can start by answering five key questions:
Led by President George H.W. Bush more than two decades ago, Congress ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to cut our nation's toxic air pollution, more than 40 percent of which comes from coal-burning plants. The Obama administration is doing so. Is that somehow unfair to the coal industry, or is it the right thing to do for the country?
In 2005, the nation got half its electricity from coal and 19 percent from natural gas. Since then, the price utility companies pay for natural gas has plunged 62 percent.
During the first six months of this year, natural gas generated 30 percent of the nation's electricity, while coal's share dropped to 35 percent. Is coal losing ground because of political attacks? Or is this an industry reeling from larger forces of technological and economic change?
Seven years ago, wind turbines provided just 0.4 percent of our nation's electricity. Since then, that figure has grown tenfold. Should we, as a nation, invest in modern energy systems that can create jobs, make us more secure and power our country into the 21st century?
Are temporary jobs a fair exchange for the permanent destruction of vast reaches of wild lands and waters, or is the nation better served by preserving special places for future generations?
We've just come through a summer of blistering heat and withering drought that wiped out more than 70 percent of the Kentucky corn crop and 60 percent of our pasture nationwide. Between January and August, we had the hottest first eight months of any year on record across the continental United States. Should carbon emissions from coal-fired plants be reduced, or is that too great an imposition on the coal industry?
Coal has a long history in this country, and it continues to supply more than a third of our electricity. Americans, though, have paid a steep price for our use of this energy source, which has ravaged our environment and undermined our health.
It's time we asked more of this industry. It's time we held those who profit from pollution to account. That's not a war on coal. It's a commitment to our future.
Frances Beinecke is president of the NRDC Action Fund, an affiliate of the Natural Resources Defense Council.