02/07/2011 04:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Is Whistling Past Coal's Graveyard

"Tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: by 2035, 80% of America's electricity will come from clean energy sources. Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all."

David Roberts of Grist says Obama should have gone to the mat for climate change in his State of the Union. After all, honesty is the best policy. And since the so-called "Climategate" scandal was debunked by Britain's Royal Institution, among others, our climate continues to provide more jaw-dropping droughts and weather catastrophes. Climate hawks and world leaders should stick to the truth, knowing it will pay dividends in street cred down the road as human-caused climate change is inexorably, irrefutably and tragically vindicated.

But what if the president took a truthful stand in these times? Wouldn't it just win him more senseless blather from a prominent faction of climate deniers? There's a lot of noise out there, particularly against climate science, spewed by media personalities who didn't deem it worth their time to go to college.

I always snicker when Obama stumps for clean coal. It's as if he's telling a secret message that some of us with decoder rings can decipher. When he was running in the primaries, he stumped for coal to liquids. Then it seems he was "gotten to" by environmentalists and he tweaked his stand into supporting coal to liquids that produce no more life cycle greenhouse gases than oil. Most voters wouldn't know it, but that rules out coal to liquids!

Democrats can dog-whistle too. But do the greens get it?

Obama's shout-out for clean coal seems another coded statement to pacify the fossil fuels base. His view is for the taxpayer to pay for more basic research on how to safely shove that bulky, acidifying molecule underground for keeps. But then comes the dog-whistle code -- he adds it's our free enterprise system that drives innovation. Well, the government can pay for clean coal research, but the market has the final say on the rest, and the market has sprouted a prickly patch against the costs of clean coal, like so much bramble around Sleeping Beauty.

The market can't much like clean coal if it's already divesting itself of old coal. In a new report, energy and metals analysts at Houston-based Wood Mackenzie predicted that up to 60 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity will be forced into retirement in the US in ten years, double the rate of that last ten. A just-released EIA report states that coal generation in the US is back to where is was in 1978, at 44 percent (and not the "half of all US power" that the coal lobby is boasting in slick ads). This follows a decade-long coal cost hike of 84 percent as China morphs from a coal exporter to an importer. And even in the last year Colorado's coal prices have doubled.

In keeping with the trend, the Sierra Club has just announced success on its efforts to have construction on 150 new coal plants in the US canceled or abandoned.

Tri-State, that large generation and transmission company that wholesales energy to rural electric co-ops, has published projections assuming 5 and 10 percent annual costs hikes for coal -- and boy howdy those projections see maximal increases in renewables with slight increases in gas use, and large coal decreases. (See here, page 230, for graph.)

And it's good that Tri-State and others are picturing a huge push in renewables, which use no water, because Western Resource Advocates just released a new report summed up with this whopper: In Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, power plants consume an estimated 395,000 acre feet of water a year, equaling the municipal water consumption of the cities of Denver, Phoenix and Albuquerque combined.

That can't keep up in a warming world. Not if we want streams and lakes and food. We know that the Southwest is marked for long-range drought in coming decades.

Coal is facing macro issues forcing costs to climb, and in the western US its cooling costs will jump. So how is Obama's clean coal -- which requires about 30 percent more coal per electron delivered, and also toxifies precious water -- supposed to make it in our free enterprise innovation system? Simple: it won't.

Obama's just whistling past coal's graveyard. Why did he pander instead of lead? The answer may be found in the voice of coal belt voters in states such as West Virginia, which sent Joe Manchin to the Senate after he advertised his intent to shoot dead any cap-and-trade bill. And he now serves on the Senate's energy committee.

A version of this column appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera.