Rick Wagner • May 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM

KINGSPORT — The United States must start taking full advantage of its available coal and oil reserves to attain energy independence, Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Jim Gilmore of Virginia said Tuesday.

The former governor of Virginia, during the closing speech at the 29th annual Eastern Coal Council Conference and Exposition held at MeadowView Conference Resort and Convention Center, said that means building the proposed Dominion coal-fired electric plant in Wise County and drilling for oil in Alaska and offshore.

“The number one issue in this Senate race is energy,” said Gilmore, a Richmond native who along with Delegate Robert Marshall, R-Prince William, is vying for the GOP nomination to run in the November general election against Democratic former Gov. Mark Warner. Marshall and Gilmore will square off at a nominating convention May 31.

Coal council officials and the Warner campaign said Warner was also invited to attend the conference but could not because of a scheduling conflict.

In his speech Tuesday, Gilmore recalled recently asking a desk clerk at an Abingdon hotel what was bothering her and getting an answer he said he gets over and over again on the campaign trail.

“Just like that: Gas prices. ‘What’s bothering me is gas prices,’” Gilmore recalled the clerk said. He said the clerk said she worked two jobs to make ends meet and was spending $250 a month on gas, based on prices about three weeks ago.

Gilmore said it is telling that Democrat Warner as governor vetoed a bill seeking permission for Virginia offshore drilling. Warner spokesman Kevin Hall, interviewed by phone Tuesday afternoon, responded that Warner vetoed the bill based on separation of powers since it asked the governor’s office to “lobby” Congress on a not-yet-filed bill lifting an offshore natural gas drilling ban.

Hall said Warner is not necessarily opposed to exploratory off-shore drilling to see if full-scale drilling is warranted and feasible.

Gilmore in an interview before his speech said that alternative sources such as nuclear, wind, solar and biofuels ethanol and biodiesel can help, but that the nation’s energy future in the short term and mid-term hinge on U.S.-produced oil and coal.

“I’m more concerned about that desk clerk over at that Hampton Inn than caribou (in Alaska),” Gilmore said, although he added that oil drilling should be done in an environmentally responsible manner in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Hall said Warner wants to focus on clean coal, hydroelectric, wind, solar, nuclear, ethanol and biodiesel as part of a “portfolio” approach.

“Governor Gilmore’s insistence on drilling in environmentally sensitive areas seems to be a 20th century answer to a 21st century problem,” Hall said of Warner’s opposition to ANWR drilling.

However, Gilmore said if the United States will start aggressively drilling for oil and using coal, it would show the world the United States is serious and it might have an immediate effect on the energy prices and supplies from overseas.

“Coal is a strategic national asset for the United States and must be part of our energy solution,” Gilmore said. “We have more coal than Saudi Arabia has oil.”

He said the United States leads the world in proven coal reserves, with 268 billion tons, compared to the former Soviet Union with 173 billion, Europe with 66 billion, China with 126 billion and India with 102 billion.

By building environmentally responsible plants to generate electricity and drilling for oil, he said America will make its “declaration of energy independence.”

Although the use of coal has tripled since 1970, Gilmore said the air has gotten cleaner. He said the proposed Dominion plant, aside from providing jobs and efficiently produced electricity, would have environmental safeguards in place.

Gilmore also berated Warner for stopping short of endorsing the proposed Dominion/Virginia Power coal-fired electric plant in St. Paul. Hall said Warner believes the Dominion plant holds promise if carbon emissions are addressed.

During a question-and-answer session, Gilmore said an experimental carbon sequestration process holds hope as a way to reduce carbon emissions.

“I’m not advocating that we just throw the carbon in the air,” Gilmore said.

Carbon sequestration is the long-term storage of carbon in the terrestrial biosphere, underground or the oceans so that the buildup of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere will reduce or slow.

U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., Monday at the conference talked about a new initiative that will pump carbon dioxide underground in Russell County to test how much, if any, of it escapes. The event, which drew 23 exhibitors and about 250 attendees, wrapped up its second day Tuesday. On Monday, U.S. Rep. David Davis, R-Tenn., and Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, were also among speakers.

For more information visit www.easterncoalcouncil.com.

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