The classic definition of a gaffe is when a politician accidentally tells the truth, and specialists like Joe Biden can work wonders with the form. On Tuesday Barack Obama's running mate blew an easy question about coal, revealing volumes about liberal energy politics.
Working the rope line in Maumee, Ohio, the Senator was asked by an environmentalist why he and Mr. Obama support "clean coal." "We're not supporting clean coal," Mr. Biden responded. Then, riffing on China's breakneck construction of new coal plants, he continued, "No coal plants here in America. Build them, if they're going to build them, over there."
Coal happens to be the indispensable workhorse of the U.S. power system, providing about 50% of the country's electricity. Many Democrats nonetheless despise coal -- because of pollution before the era of scrubbers, but especially now because of carbon emissions. Al Gore favors an outright moratorium on coal-fired power in the name of climate change. Meanwhile, any scheme to tax and regulate carbon -- like the cap-and-trade program backed by Mr. Obama and John McCain -- would hit coal first and hardest, effectively banishing it from the U.S. energy mix.
Mr. Biden, then, only stated an obvious if politically unutterable truth. The real costs of green ambitions won't be paid by well-heeled coastal liberals, but will fall disproportionately on the Southern and Midwestern states that depend on coal for jobs and power. The blue-collar voters of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia and so forth will get hurt most -- notwithstanding Mr. Biden's campaign reinvention as the scrapper from Scranton.
As for "clean coal," the Obama campaign actually supports it. But this too is a political bait-and-switch, perhaps explaining Mr. Biden's confusion. In theory, clean coal would require capturing greenhouse gas emissions, compressing them into liquid and then pumping it underneath the earth. Even if the technology were ready for commercial deployment tomorrow, to sequester just 25% of yearly U.S. CO2 emissions would mean moving volumes more than twice as large as the world's current oil pipeline system can handle. That will require an enormous amount of money, and generations to build.
That an eminence like Mr. Biden is clueless about coal suggests how little official Washington has thought through the consequences of its anticarbon agenda. His blunder is also notable because it exposed the realities that politicians prefer not to voice amid an election campaign. Coal-state voters should be watching what their politicians really have planned for them come January.