The Economist warns us this week that coal is going to become an increasingly tempting energy substitute as oil prices continue to hit new records. Why? Because the alternatives to coal--natural gas, fuel oil, and diesel--are all tied to oil. Coal remains America’s most abundant energy resource, and the growing call for the country to assert its energy independence only stands to strengthen the coal lobby.

While McCain touted the development of “clean” coal technology this week, others are skeptical about our ability to mitigate the filthy outputs of coal-burning, worrying that the science will lag behind the rally to increase coal exploration and consumption. With rare exceptions, the Democrats also haven’t done much to stand down Big Coal. In 2006, Obama helped re-introduce a controversial plan to promote liquefied coal as an alternative fuel for motor vehicles--a fuel that would be far dirtier burning oil. Though he has since qualified his stance, Obama has continued to make coal-friendly appeals while campaigning in King Coal states.

In the meantime, other leading Dems have continued to green-light projects that have yet to meet any kind of rigorous “clean coal” standards. Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine has thrown his support behind a new coal-fired electrical plant, which is set to advance after being approved by the state’s Air Pollution Control Board on Wednesday. Despite a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that ordered the EPA to treat the gas as a pollutant, the regulatory board declined to place any limits on carbon dioxide emissions. (The plant is expected to emit 5.3 million tons of CO2 per year.) In addition to meeting Virginia’s energy needs, officials hope that the plant will revitalize the remote, economically depressed region, adding some 800 jobs in the area.

But if this is the kind of project that’s supposed to amp up our ailing economy, what’s next? A throwback to the good ole days of the Industrial Revolution, when coal-powered manufacturing plants didn’t have to deal with pesky regulatory standards? With folks already hyping the potential return of American manufacturing, I worry about the reactionary, pollutant-enabling policies that might accompany such nostalgic pipe dreams. As Brad describes, the country’s growing ranks of anti-coal activists are already preparing for the fight.

--Suzy Khimm