Ken Bone’s Question About Energy Policy Was Pretty Great

Sometimes it takes a cozy red sweater to get energy policy in the spotlight.

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Oct 11 2016, 9:00am

Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

One of the biggest things to come out of Sunday's presidential debate was Kenneth Bone: the man, the meme, and the only person to ask a good question about America's energy future.

Bone, a coal power worker, posed the town hall's penultimate question, putting Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on the spot over one of the election's most neglected issues.

"What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job layoffs?"

Bone's query should have resounded with anyone who gives a shit about our climate and the fate of life on Earth, but this was promptly overshadowed by his quick ascension into the ranks of internet stardom.

Over at Gizmodo, reporter Sophie Kleeman wrote about the portrayal of Bone in the news cycle, citing headlines that called him a "hero," the "winner of the presidential debate," and the "only honest man in this election."

Kleeman wrote:

"Ken Bone took the nation's only shot at asking a substantive question about the candidates' approach to science and energy and jauntily smothered it to death. Ken Bone so beautifully screwed up the execution of what could have been a hard-hitting, line-in-the-sand question that he may as well have been planted in the audience by the fossil fuel industry. Ken Bone is a national symbol, sure—of our utter inability to address climate change or energy policy in any other way that isn't just, 'Oh, boy! The environment! Will you look at that?'"

She's right. The disproportionate hype of Bone's alleged goodness compared to actual voting issues is irresponsible and bad. It feeds off the same putrid traffic chum that gives us stories like this and this, and doesn't help the fact that climate change is among the most divisive topics that people should vote on, but likely won't.

However, I have to disagree with the notion that Bone bungled his opportunity to press Clinton and Trump on climate change. After all, the issue of global warming, and all of its consequences, is indivisible from energy policy. And few people know this better than coal industry workers, like Bone himself.

"I work in coal-fired electricity and it's a big concern where I live in southern Illinois, the St. Louis metro area," he told NBC after the debate.

During the first presidential debate, climate change was discussed for a puny 82 seconds. And as we continue to march past milestones signifying our influence on the Earth's atmosphere, it's imperative to know that our leaders understand how dire our situation is. One of the few real ways to make an impact on climate change isn't to argue whether it's real, but to make serious changes to our energy mix.

Instead of allowing Trump to predictably dunk on climate research with a question like, "Do you believe that climate change is happening, and what should we do about it?" Bone bypassed the stuff we already know, such as Trump's science denialism, and offered a taste of pragmatism we've yet to receive with regard to environmental issues.

He was able to reveal, for example, that Trump would hedge America's energy sector on the promise of "clean coal": an industry name for reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants through carbon capture and sequestration technology (CCS). "Hillary Clinton wants to put all the miners out of business. There is a thing called clean coal. Coal will last for 1,000 years in this country," Trump said.

While clean coal technology assuredly exists, the term itself is bandied around by GOP members to undermine federal environmental regulations that place limits on greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants. It's a long ways off from widespread implementation, and doesn't really rank among more feasible energy alternatives, like wind or solar power. Clean coal technology is also tremendously expensive—"Power plants with CCS cost about 75 percent more than regular coal plants," according to the New York Times—and doesn't address the other environmental and health impacts of coal mining, such as mountaintop removal, and airborne toxins.

Trump's wild claim that coal "will last for 1,000 years" also provided a profound glimpse into his deep misunderstanding of our nation's energy economy. For a seasoned businessman, Trump actually has no idea how America's energy markets work. He seems to be one of the only people in the US who hasn't witnessed the steady demise of coal as it's supplanted by cheaper natural gas. This trend, I assume, is part of why Bone asked his question in the first place.

Between 2007 and 2015, coal consumption in nearly every state saw a decline. In Pennsylvania, one of the five largest coal producers in 2014, consumption fell by 44 percent during those eight years. Last year, more than 1,200 mining jobs were eliminated in Bone's home-state of Illinois. Again, despite what Trump has suggested, this isn't the result of some government climate conspiracy, either: Coal has largely been replaced by natural gas.

Even worse was the fact that Trump got several things flat out wrong. He said the Obama Administration is "absolutely killing" the nation's energy industry. This is incorrect. Domestic fossil fuel production has only risen in recent years. In 2015, domestic energy production was equal to "about 91 percent of US energy consumption." Trump also made the claim that energy companies will pay off our $19 trillion national debt, which Associated Press fact-checkers more or less debunked.

On the flip side, Clinton offered up an equally revealing answer to Bone's question. For the first time this election season, Clinton was straightforward about her stance on fracking. "We are, however, producing a lot of natural gas, which serves as a bridge to more renewable fuels. And I think that's an important transition," she replied.

This is telling, because multiple investigations into Clinton's relationship with the natural gas industry have starkly contradicted her cautious position on the issue. Earlier this year, The Intercept obtained emails showing that Department of State officials working with her "pressed other agencies within the Obama administration to commit federal government resources including technical assistance for locating shale reserves." In 2014, a Mother Jones exposé accused Clinton of having "sold fracking to the world."

But as Politifact pointed out in April, Clinton's public statements on fracking have been tricky to parse. In a 2009 speech to the Inter-American Development Bank, she called it the "cleanest fossil fuel available," but promised to regulate it into non-existence during a Democratic presidential debate. She's referred to fracking as a "bridge" toward renewable energy before, but called it one to "cross as quickly as possible."

Clinton's reply could mean this: If elected, she would continue to oppose a ban on fracking, but would advocate for stricter regulations, as she's previously alluded to. Instead of quickly building and dismantling this bridge, however, she would permit what many environmental groups have always feared—a future where fracking is indisposable, and renewables are again sidelined. Like Clinton said at the debate, "We've got to remain energy independent." (However, this is not entirely true, as Mother Jones fact-checkers noted, since the US "is still a net importer of crude oil and petroleum products.")

So, while Bone's question wasn't profound by some standards, or specific or even "hard-hitting," it pressed our candidates to respond more realistically about climate change.

We already know that Trump thinks global warming is a hoax. We know that Hillary understands climate research. This is all just pandering! Are market-driven plans for climate change boring as hell? Probably. But am I going to vote for someone just because they fucking love science? No, and neither should you.

"Secretary Clinton I thought had a very impressive performance," Bone said after the debate. "I was leaning more towards Trump before but the whole experience has left me I think with more of an open mind."