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Manchin touts security of coal resources

| Thursday, June 17, 2010

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the face of a presidential call to break the country's dependence on fossil fuels such as coal, Gov. Joe Manchin III defended his state's premier export.

President Obama, in his first Oval Office address Tuesday, called the BP oil spill "the most painful and powerful reminder" that "the time to embrace a clean energy future is now." Manchin, in an interview with the Tribune-Review hours before Obama's address, said coal remains the most important energy source in the country and pushed back against efforts to move away from it.

He said the Obama administration risks "self-inflicted economic pain" in its quest to curtail carbon emissions and spur renewable energy development.

"The bottom line is, they continue to try to overregulate and overtax," said Manchin, a Democrat. "I'm not being critical. I'm being very factual with what I see."

West Virginia, home to 0.5 percent of the country's population, produced 13 percent of U.S. coal last year, according to the Department of Energy. Coal accounts for more than half the country's electricity production, according the department.

"For decades, we've talked and talked about the need to end America's centurylong addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we've failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires," Obama said.

That century saw the rise of modern America -- a rise fueled by cheap coal and oil, Manchin said.

"It's basically the energy (miners) have produced that's made the country what it is today," Manchin said. "We've built the greatest industrial might, and we've built the greatest middle class ... in recorded history, and we've done it off domestic energy."

He said he has spoken to Obama and "we just basically have our agreement to disagree, respectfully."

For congressional leaders in favor of a carbon tax -- something supporters say is necessary to pay for alternative energy research -- Manchin had sharper words.

"Why don't you just say, 'We want to quit mining coal in America?' If that's your intention, then God help us as a nation, because we'll become dependent on someone else mining the coal for us, as we've become dependent on someone else to deliver the oil to us."

Though Obama said this week that a renewable-energy economy "is not some distant vision for America," energy experts say the transition would take decades. Optimistically, the United States could produce as much as half its energy from renewable sources in 30 years, said Laura Schaefer, associate director of the Center for Energy at the University of Pittsburgh. More likely, renewable energy will produce closer to 30 percent, she said.

The government is the only entity large enough to pay for expensive alternative energy research that likely won't become profitable for decades, said Paul Bledsoe, a former energy adviser to President Bill Clinton and spokesman for the American Energy Innovation Council. The council is led by executives including Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Bank of America CEO Charles Holliday.

"Corporations don't exist on payoffs in 20, 30 years. That's why government has to be involved," Bledsoe said. "We just don't know what the technology might be for our children in 30 years. If we don't make the investments, it's probably more likely to look like what we have now."

In the meantime, "transition technologies" such as nuclear power -- which emits no carbon but creates lethal radioactive waste -- offer a way to take a step away from fossil fuels, Schaefer said.

"I think nuclear energy is what's going to get us there, rather than drilling for another 60 years' worth of oil, or Marcellus shale, or finding a better way to strip-mine West Virginia," Schaefer said.

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