What the Frack?!

How the 2012 election could come down to one thing: coal.

Mitt Romney and the U.S. coal industry are engaged in a very public love affair. In August, the Republican candidate stood on a stage in Ohio and condemned Barack Obama's "war on coal," backed by a group of beefy, safety-helmeted men who looked like they just stomped out of a coal mine. Those miners later appeared in one of Romney's two September ads focused on coal, the "way of life" that, in his telling, Obama is ruthlessly attempting to crush.

"By the way," Romney said in his first debate with Obama, lest America miss the point, "I like coal!"

That was Oct. 3. On Oct. 4, coal stocks soared. On Friday, Romney was in Abingdon, Virginia, holding a "Coal Country" rally, proclaiming, "I don't believe in putting our coal under the ground forever." (Was that one of Obama's shovel-ready projects?)

If it feels like he's trying too hard, it's probably because Romney is not a natural fit for the industry's affections. When he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney signed a climate change plan, supported clean-energy startups, and famously went after a coal plant that was shirking pollution controls, saying, "I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people. And that plant kills people." (In one of its most cynical maneuvers, the Obama campaign has run ads attacking Romney for making this eminently defensible point.)

Now, however, Romney needs coal's love, and badly. Coal jobs and cheap coal electricity are important to several of the swing states upon which the election hinges, most especially Ohio, which may single-handedly decide the race. It's not enough for coal fans to be upset with Obama; Romney needs them actively working on his behalf.

It doesn't come easy to him -- Romney isn't exactly known for his easy rapport with the working class. Remember those miners on stage in Ohio? It turns out that they were forced to attend the rally, without pay, and aren't very happy about it. And for all that environmental regulations have turned the United Mine Workers of America against Obama this year, they aren't endorsing Romney either. The union is sitting this one out.

Nonetheless, where it counts -- in board rooms and executive suites -- Romney is being richly rewarded for his support. The boss who forced his miners to attend Romney's rally, CEO Robert Murray of Murray Energy, hosted a $1.7 million fundraiser for the candidate in May and has apparently been bullying his employees into contributing to his anti-Obama PAC, prompting a complaint to the SEC.

Coal executives are in need of friends in Washington these days, as they're running out of them in U.S. power markets. In the late 1990s, coal provided half the power used in the United States. By 2011, that figure was down to 42 percent. In April, for the first time since the U.S. Energy Information Administration began collecting data in the 1970s, natural gas generated as much power as coal -- each claimed 32 percent of the total.

That is an extraordinary milestone, and the trend shows no sign of reversing. In a recent report, the Brattle Group research consultancy estimated that between 59 and 77 gigawatts of coal power capacity will retire or announce retirement by 2016 -- between 20 and 25 percent of the entire U.S. coal fleet. And that's without any new restrictions on the carbon emissions that drive climate change.

Republicans are keen to convince the public that the faltering fortunes of coal-fired power are a result of Obama's "war on coal," i.e., new regulations from EPA. But Brattle, most other independent researchers, and, in their confidential moments, utility executives themselves agree that the real culprit is cheap natural gas. Advances in hydraulic fracking technology have produced an enormous glut of gas in the United States, fatally undercutting the economics of coal generation. In February, CEO Nick Akins of American Electric Power, one of America's biggest coal-burning utilities, said, "I can tell you there will not be any new coal plants built, with the current price of gas and the forecast for the future for gas."

Analysts expect natural gas prices to rise from their recent historic lows, but not far or fast enough to prevent a continued decline of coal. Dozens of aging coal plants the United States are reaching the point where they must be upgraded (thus becoming subject to more stringent air pollution rules) or retired. Cheap gas is tilting more and more of these decisions in favor of retirement.

What about the "clean coal" both candidates claim to support? There is some calculated ambiguity around the term these days, as there has always been. The practice among U.S. power executives has been to fight off EPA rules as long as they can, and when they are eventually forced to install pollution controls, claim that whatever results is "clean coal." (It's not a new idea. The term dates back to the early 20th century.) But insofar as it's a term of art in contemporary energy discussions, "clean coal" means coal plants with attached facilities that capture carbon emissions and bury them underground.

Coal with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is good PR for the industry and a good way for Obama to be seen to support coal, but in terms of power markets, it is a non-entity. "Clean coal" currently produces zero percent of U.S. electricity. Of the handful of coal plants with CCS that were planned in recent years, most have been canceled or put on hold due to their extraordinary cost. One of the few going forward, the Kemper coal plant in Mississippi, is 25 percent done and has already gone over budget twice. Its tab, which is nearing $2.8 billion, will be paid by Mississippi ratepayers whether or not the plant ever reaches operation.

Absent huge new subsidies or a stiff carbon tax, it's unlikely that CCS will ever evolve into a serious market competitor. So the real question, the practical question, is what to do about dirty coal -- the kind that exists in the real world.

On that matter, there are real differences between the candidates. It's bit of hysterical overstatement to call Obama's EPA rules, which were mandated by courts in accordance with the Clean Air Act, a "war on coal." But he and his administration recognize that it's impossible to reduce air pollution, water pollution, and climate emissions in the United States without reducing the role of coal-fired power plants.

Those power plants are responsible for around 90 percent of the power sector's CO2, along with the vast bulk of its sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrochloric acid, mercury, arsenic, and particulate matter. According to the American Lung Association, these combine to create a stew of some 386,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants per year. A 2009 report from the National Research Council found that the sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides alone impose $62 billion a year in public-health costs. A 2010 report from the Clean Air Task Force estimated coal power was responsible for 13,200 premature deaths, 20,000 heart attacks, and 9,700 additional hospitalizations that year. Needless to say, those costs are not factored into coal's market price.

Obama's campaign slogan on energy is "all of the above," but implicitly, he has acknowledged that coal must be phased out over time if any progress is to be made on climate change. For instance, the Clean Energy Standard he proposed last year would allow utilities to count nuclear, natural gas, and "clean coal" power toward their carbon-reduction goals. It's all of the above ... except dirty coal.

For political reasons, Obama will never say a cross word about coal. It is too popular in too many blue and swing states. He will continue to sing the praises of "clean coal" and maintain the pretense that there is a future for coal in a climate-constrained power system. But he will not do anything to halt coal's inevitable economic decline. He'll enforce existing EPA regulations and give the agency space to issue new ones. He'll back the natural gas industry and the clean-energy industry. And he'll let history take its course.

Romney, taking a page from the playbook of conservative icon William F. Buckley, will stand athwart history, yelling "Stop!" Despite his bluster, he can't just suspend EPA rules. But he can make sure that new rules are lax and existing rules poorly enforced. With a friendly legislature, he can insure that all future EPA rules pass through the congressional meatgrinder, effectively crippling the agency's independent rulemaking ability. But he can't put the natural gas genie back in the bottle. He can't stop the falling costs of solar and wind power. And he can't change the fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans, across regions and demographics, support a transition to modern, cleaner power system.

However much it may be a political football in this year's election, coal power is on the wane in the United States and no politician can do terribly much about it. The only future for U.S. coal companies now is export to burgeoning economies like China and India with weaker air pollution laws and growing demand for power. These exports have doubled since 2009, now representing 12 percent of U.S. production. They also account for the Obama campaign's frequently cited statistic that coal-mining employment hit a 15-year high in 2011. But to fully compensate for the decline of U.S. coal power, coal companies need big new export terminals on America's west coast. The political battles over those terminals could stretch on for decades.

So no matter where American electricity comes from in coming years, coal is likely to be a heated subject for many elections to come. Campaigns, order your prop hard hats now!

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

National Security

Inside and Upside Down

Why the Pentagon's ad hoc plans to prevent green-on-blue attacks could backfire.

It's officially an epidemic. Attacks from within the Afghan security forces have killed a record number of international troops this year. As of October 2012, a total of 55 fatalities were reported as a result of these "insider," or "green-on-blue" attacks -- which now account for an astonishing 15 percent of all coalition casualties this year.

Not surprisingly, the insider threat has had a profoundly negative effect on the partnership between international and Afghan forces, just as the NATO-led coalition is preparing to end its mission. In September, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) took Afghan partners and international allies by surprise when it announced the temporary suspension of joint patrols and operations. About a week later, cooperation resumed, but the effect of this move still reverberates both in Afghanistan and beyond. As outgoing ISAF commander, Gen. John Allen, told CBS's 60 Minutes in a recent interview: "We're willing to sacrifice a lot for this campaign, but we're not willing to be murdered for it."

What has become clearer with the news of each successive attack is that insider violence is now having a strategic effect on the coalition's plans for withdrawal. Nothing underscores the perceived futility of the NATO mission in Afghanistan than Afghan allies who kill scores of international troops. As such, they already have an impact on the transition, which may end up being fast-tracked if Washington or Kabul can't figure out a way to stem the problem.

It is a problem that has most NATO members with a troop presence in Afghanistan considerably worried. Consequently, the issue has been addressed on the highest levels. At the NATO conference early this month, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta sought to reassure his allies that steps were being taken to address the issue: "We can only deny the enemy its objective by countering these attacks with all of our strength." In mid-August, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, flew in for talks with ISAF commander General Allen and his Afghan counterpart, Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi. Even U.S. President Barack Obama was forced to admit there was something rotten in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan when he addressed the issue at an August news conference, albeit in passing.

The string of insider attacks has left NATO scrambling to find effective countermeasures. But there's no easy solution. The causes for these attacks are manifold, attributed to a potent mix of insurgent infiltration, resentment, radicalization, and combat stress. However, there is no clear explanation as to why this disturbing trend has surfaced with such vehemence. In 2011, coalition forces lost 31 service members in attacks committed by Afghan security personnel. In 2010, the year of the troop surge, insider attacks accounted for 21 coalition casualties. In a message to celebrate the end of this year's Ramadan, Taliban leader Mullah Omar claimed the successful penetration of the Afghan security forces was part of a comprehensive plan to subvert the international strategy. The veracity of the message could not be confirmed, but Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also offered similar statements to that effect.

Some analysts say the green-on-blue attacks are a side effect of the externally induced growth of the Afghan security forces, which are being rapidly stood up as U.S. troops prepare to leave. In just three years, they have grown from 163,000 in March 2009 to 350,000 in March 2012. In order to muster this enormous amount of personnel, both the Afghan security forces and the coalition have had to lower their sights. Haphazard vetting and superficial background checks were a logical consequence. The coalition recently said it thought about 25 percent of all reported insider attacks were related to insurgent infiltration. But particular flashpoints may have also contributed to the spike in attacks. Incidents like the accidental burning of Qurans at Bagram Air Field in February or the Panjwayi massacre in Kandahar earlier this year have done much to antagonize significant parts of the population and by extension, members of the Afghan security forces.

Unfortunately, why the attacks have occurred is less important now than how to stop them. This summer, both the coalition and the Afghan forces have begun to implement several provisions designed to reduce the risk of insider attacks. Some measures are designed to provide protection to the troops on the ground; others are geared toward prevention.

One of the more prominent countermeasures is the employment of "guardian angels" -- essentially NATO troops assigned additional guard duty to watch out for fellow soldiers. Effectively babysitting with guns, this is the most visible provision in effect across the theater. Yet this approach isn't without risk. While guardian angels might nip the odd attack in the bud, Afghan troops may perceive the presence of armed guards as an insult to their sense of partnership and hospitality. In turn, this could further aggravate potential antagonisms, perhaps even creating an additional risk. General Allen's decision to upgrade weapon status to "amber" level, an order issued in August, simply adds spine to the guardian angel concept. Nationwide, ISAF service members will now have to carry loaded weapons around the clock while they are on base. The change in weapon security status across the theater is a clear sign that the problem of insider attacks isn't limited to certain geographic areas or to specific military forces. But this tactic is limited to protection, not prevention.

Another interesting provision, which has received less coverage, is a new pocket guide for ISAF forces based on a classified handbook. Published by the Center for Army Lessons Learned in February, this four-page "smart card" aims to provide advice to deployed troops on how to deal with "Inside the Wire Threats." It picks up some of the findings of a now widely cited report, "A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility," compiled by military behavioral analyst Jeffrey Bodin, which suggested that cultural differences were one key reason behind the increase of insider attacks. Ultimately, the guide may help to raise awareness, but it's unlikely it will play a more than a very limited role in the overall effort to combat the issue of insider attacks.

On the Afghan side, provisions to counter this problem have been made as well, albeit on a more haphazard basis. Frequently omitted is the fact that the Afghan security forces suffer from insider attacks -- scores of Afghan troops have been wounded and killed by rogue colleagues, who often defect to the Taliban. There are no credible figures for green-on-green violence, but analysts believe that the number may be double that of attacks on international troops. And yet Afghans are in many ways much better predisposed to mount effective countermeasures to this threat: There is much less of a cultural divide, a lower language barrier, and a more intimate familiarity between the individuals within any security force or unit.

Consequently, enhanced intelligence and counterintelligence capacities are among the most prominent measures implemented by the Afghan security forces. Those measures include the deployment of undercover intelligence officers, surveillance of phone calls, and a ban on cell phone use among new recruits. Security personnel with ties to foreign countries have come under particular scrutiny. The Afghan Ministry of Defense has even gone so far as to order troops whose families live in Pakistan to either relocate them to Afghanistan or quit the force. (This policy, however, seems to have been implemented haphazardly and on a case-by-case basis.)

The recruitment and vetting process of the Afghan security forces has also moved into the spotlight. Too many recruits have entered the Afghan security forces without adequate background and security checks, which has opened the door to insurgent infiltration. Tribal elders or village dignitaries, who are required to vouch for the character of potential recruits, aren't held accountable -- a fact which isn't likely to change anytime soon. Of particular concern here has been the creation of the Afghan Local Police (ALP), comprised largely of paramilitary groups that are mentored by U.S. Special Forces as part of the Village Stability Operations concept. Members of the ALP have frequently been accused of theft, murder, and other human rights violations. In September, U.S. Special Forces temporarily suspended the training of 1,000 members of the Afghan Local Police to allow for the re-vetting of already existing members, of whom there are roughly 12,000.

On a wider basis, the Afghan National Security Council recently announced plans to enhance the screening process for recruits upon entry into the security forces. Those plans include the introduction of a more detailed questionnaire for recruits and additional background checks for recruits with family ties to Pakistan or Iran. The council also announced plans to develop a training program for the Afghan security forces to prevent cultural misunderstandings with international counterparts, which seem to have been the cause of some insider attacks.

But these stopgap measures aren't likely to stem the increasing wave of green-on-blue violence. Clearly, a single, comprehensive package to prevent future insider attacks is lacking. While cooperation between Afghan and international actors exists from top to bottom, the extent, quality, and frequency of these measures varies greatly. A specific, overarching framework to coordinate the different steps and measures doesn't yet exist and the Pentagon, while clearly concerned, has not announced any plans to synchronize their efforts with their erstwhile allies under such a framework. Clearly, better coordination between the international coalition and its Afghan partners is necessary. To this end, small, dedicated insider attack task forces or cells could be established at the joint operation and intelligence fusion centers that are active in most provinces and districts where coalition forces maintain a permanent presence. But even these measures won't quickly stem the constant stream of attacks. 

Time, of course, is something neither the United States nor NATO has, as the 2014 deadline to end the combat mission approaches fast. With every insider attack, troop morale plummets further, despite reassurances to the contrary. The first cracks are starting to appear. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently hinted in an interview at the possibility of speeding up the timeline, though he backtracked on his comments a day later. Still, this episode hints at a certain nervousness at the highest levels.

The good news, if there is a glimmer in any of this, is that insider attacks are an issue where the U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan security forces share a mutual interest, which cannot be said of many other issues at this stage of the long war. Here is an opportunity where both allies can benefit equally from mutual cooperation, reinforcing the much-needed trust that will allow for a successful hand-off of responsibility. But both sides need to realize that unilateral moves, such as imposing strict limitations on joint operations or the withdrawal of coalition advisers from Afghan ministries are counterproductive at best -- and outright dangerous at worst.