(TNS) -- In a state where many people take it as fact that the Obama administration is waging a war on coal, a top federal official said Thursday it just isn’t true.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz was in Lexington for a forum at the University of Kentucky on energy innovation, including research on removing carbon dioxide from emissions at coal-fired power plants.

In an interview, Moniz said the administration is committed to a future with less carbon going into the atmosphere, but it does not advocate ending the use of coal for electricity production in the U.S.

“Make no bones about it — we start with the assertion, the commitment, that we are talking about a progressively lower carbon future,” Moniz said. “But we have not abandoned coal as part of that future.”

Most scientists say the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is driving climate change that causes drought and increases the severity of storms, among other problems. Coal-fired power plants are a major source of carbon emissions.

President Barack Obama has pushed policies requiring lower emissions of carbon and mercury from power plants, as well as other rules aimed at protecting air and water quality.

Those environmental policies have played a role in driving down demand for coal. One key reason is that utilities have switched from coal to natural gas because it burns cleaner.

Low gas prices have also played a role in such fuel-switching.

To support his stance that the Obama administration has not abandoned coal, Moniz pointed to billions of dollars Obama has proposed for research on technology to remove carbon from power-plant emissions, called carbon capture and storage, or CCS.

In the current budget, for instance, Obama proposed nearly $6.5 billion for demonstration projects or tax credits to boost use of carbon-capture technology; $8.5 billion in loan guarantees for fossil-fuel projects; and $600 million for research to “advance the role of coal in a future clean energy economy” according to the Department of Energy.

If the administration wanted to kill off coal, Moniz said, “we wouldn’t have put $6 billion into CCS.”

He also pointed out Obama has requested money for programs to help areas hurt by a downturn in coal, such as retraining for laid-off miners.

“It does not hold water when you see the facts,” Moniz said of claims the administration is waging a war on coal.

Moniz pointed to the sustained low price of natural gas as the biggest factor in reduced coal demand.

But Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said the administration’s environmental rules have hurt the market for coal and also the industry’s ability to mine it.

“They have been constant in their actions against this industry,” Bissett said.

The result is evident in places like eastern Kentucky, Bissett said.

The region has lost more than half its coal jobs in recent years, sending a shock wave through the economy.

As to carbon-capture technology, Bissett said it is not available at a scale that would allow coal-fueled power plants to meet lower emission limits the administration backs.

So, companies are closing existing coal plants and can’t build new ones, Bissett said.

Moniz said technology innovations and market factors could drive down the cost of capturing carbon from power plants.

“I don’t accept the idea that because carbon capture is expensive today it’s always going to be that way,” he said.

Bill Estep: 606-678-4655, @billestep1


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