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Obama Notes 'Reversal' for Clinton on Energy

DES MOINES, IOWA--Sooner or later, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had to know that her sketchy record on ethanol would catch up with her in Iowa.

In a Des Moines Register interview published today, Sen. Barack Obama questioned Clinton's commitment to clean energy by noting her previous opposition to ethanol incentives. Clinton proposed expanding the use of biofuels, including ethanol, in the 10-year, $150 billion energy plan she unveiled Monday in Cedar Rapids. But in her Senate tenure, she has not exactly been a champion.

Obama told the Register: "It's hard to believe that she is a strong ethanol supporter given her track record, and this is something that represents a major reversal, and what we need is consistency on these issues...If she's willing to shift this quickly on this issue, we don't know whether she will shift back when it gets hard."

Ethanol, as every candidate for national office knows, is big business in Iowa. The state produces and consumes it in enormous quantities. Obama's home state of Illinois is another industry leader, and the senator has been a consistent booster.

The Obama campaign counted 13 votes cast by Clinton from 2002 to 2006 that could be construed as anti-ethanol, including two efforts to triple the amount of ethanol mixed with gasoline. In 2005, she helped to block an energy bill amendment that would have established an ethanol mandate for refineries, a provision her New York colleague, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, called "onerous, anti-competitive, anti-free-market."

At the time, Clinton was campaigning for re-election in a state with no ethanol industry. Higher gas prices were a real threat, if New York were forced to import large quantities of the corn-based fuel to comply. But now the state is itself venturing into the ethanol business, and Clinton has warmed to incentives. In a speech 18 months ago, she said of ethanol use, "We need to be moving on a much faster track."

Obama told the Register that Clinton's conversion appeared suspiciously timed. "These are a lot of votes and over a lengthy period of time," he said in the interview. "If she were committed to alternative energy, there certainly would have been opportunities for her to amend the legislation or alter it in ways that would address any concerns that she had."

Clinton spokesman Phil Singer said the senator had supported numerous pro-ethanol measures since 2006, including tax incentives to install ethanol pumps at gas stations and produce more flexible-fuel cars. Clinton also co-sponsored a 2006 bill to dramatically expand renewable energy, including ethanol and other biofuels, by 2025.

"She has always been a supporter for ethanol except for a time when there was evidence that the state she represents in the U.S. Senate would be hurt economically," Singer said. "Apparently, Sen. Obama thinks misleading the voters about his fellow candidates' records is what the politics of hope is all about."

Clinton's energy plan aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050, and to cut foreign oil imports by two-thirds from 2030 projected levels, more than 10 million barrels per day.

In her Monday speech, Clinton proposed increasing the national goal for biofuel use to 60 billion gallons by 2030, with almost half of that coming from advanced biofuels like cellulosic ethanol, which is more effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and can be produced from products other than corn, including straw and woodchips. One state investing heavily in commercial cellulosic ethanol development: New York.

--Shailagh Murray

By Washington Post editors  |  November 7, 2007; 5:33 PM ET
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