Almost anywhere you plant your feet in fatefully named Greene County, Pa., you are likely to be standing on a bed of coal, the condemnable, combustible rock whose future is now being framed 6,500 kilometres away at a global climate-change summit in Copenhagen.
On some patches of this quiet stretch of the Allegheny Plateau all that remains below are the pillars of coal left standing to prevent the ground above from collapsing when the area was mined starting a century ago to feed Andrew Carnegie's steel mills 100 kilometres north in Pittsburgh.
But Greene County still sits atop one of the world's richest coal deposits and more than 2,000 workers toil in half a dozen mines, one of them the largest U.S. underground operation. Open-top rail cars heaped with bituminous rock roll through Waynesburg all day long toward some of the 1,500 coal-fired plants in the United States that use the raw material to produce half of the electricity in the country.
Coal-based power, which is North America's leading source of greenhouse-gas emissions, illustrates the conundrum U.S. President Barack Obama faces as he heads to Copenhagen today.
He must somehow reconcile demands for U.S. leadership on climate change with the reservations of members of his own party, unionized U.S. coal miners and average Americans worried about the price of electricity going up and their country ceding economic ground to China.
Whichever side wins the better part of that argument will determine whether the U.S. emissions-reductions targets agreed to in Copenhagen turn out to be much more than more talk.
Mr. Obama's decisions will weigh heavily on places such as Greene County. In a country scarred by a devastating economic downturn, the recession cruised by mostly unnoticed in this region. Despite a modest slump in coal prices, almost no jobs were lost here. Paying an average of $75,000 (U.S.) a year plus health benefits, coal jobs keep the local car dealerships and restaurants humming.
"If it wasn't for coal mining, I'd be closing my doors," opines Victoria Bruno, owner of Mickey's Men's Shop in Waynesburg, whose store sits just short of where High Street crests to afford a panoramic view of the Emerald mine that sits on the edge of town and employs 700 people in the community of 4,200.
With Mr. Obama's presence in Copenhagen seen as potentially sealing the deal on an international treaty that would commit the United States to dramatically slashing its emissions by 2020, Greene County official Pam Snyder would like a word with him before he signs on the dotted line.
"I would tell him: 'Mr. President, you need to protect the environment, but you can't leave the coal industry behind in that process,' " warns Ms. Snyder, chairman of the county government, whose office wall is adorned with her framed delegate badge from the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver that crowned Mr. Obama the party's presidential nominee.
"What good would it do to [accept a deal]that would kill hundreds of thousands of jobs in this country?" Ms. Snyder asks. "What good would the stimulus package have been?"
While running to become president, Mr. Obama proclaimed his country "the Saudi Arabia of coal" and his vow to protect the industry won him an endorsement from the United Mine Workers of America. But in office, Mr. Obama is running up against an incontrovertible constraint. The President cannot meet his target of reducing the country's greenhouse-gas emissions by around 17 per cent below their 2005 levels within a decade without inflicting pain on coal workers, power utilities, electricity consumers - and the ordinary folks of Greene County who voted for him.
As it stands, the "clean coal" technology touted as a win-win solution by Mr. Obama remains little more than a scientific possibility. Hundreds of billions of dollars and an unknown number of years need to be invested before still unproven emissions-mitigation methods such as carbon capture and storage can be safely and economically deployed.
In the next decade then, the fate of Waynesburg and hundreds of American communities like it will depend on what kind of treaty comes out of Copenhagen and the shape of subsequent legislation to implement any accord.
At the Greene County Department of Economic Development, research assistant Marty Niverth concedes that the term "cap and trade" - the name for the principal method used to cut emissions in a bill adopted in June by the U.S. House of Representatives - draws mostly blank stares in these parts.
"There's not a lot of talk about it locally because no one has bothered to explain to us the exact ramifications of what could happen," he says. "I don't think [U.S. negotiators]did their homework before they went to Copenhagen."
Under a cap-and-trade scheme, firms such as power utilities would see a ceiling slapped on their emissions. The ceiling would be set lower every year and firms could surpass it only by buying pollution credits on the open market or from companies that had slashed their emissions to below their assigned limit. The price of permits would therefore rise each year as the supply declines.