On the Issues
Obama's Coal Stance, in Kentucky and Beyond
By Alec MacGillis
If Barack Obama fails to improve on his margin in West Virginia in adjacent Kentucky tonight, where Hillary Clinton has already been declared the decisive victor, it will be interesting to see whether his campaign draws the conclusion that, among other factors, its pro-coal gambit in the Bluegrass State wasn't worth the trouble.
Over the past two weeks, Obama's campaign has run an ad in Kentucky depicting Obama as a strong friend of the coal industry, recounting his efforts on behalf of coal miners in southern Illinois and touting his success in securing $200 million in the federal budget last year for "clean coal" technologies.
Obama "helped lead the fight for clean coal to protect our environment and save good-paying American jobs," the ad's narrator said, in language similar to a mailing that the campaign sent out in the state.
The ad's intent was clear in a state that still relies heavily on the coal industry and where Obama faced an electorate inclined heavily toward Clinton. But it dismayed some environmentalists who, despite their generally staunch support for Obama's record and platform, have been critical of his complicated record on coal issues.
In the beginning of his Senate career, Obama appeared to be a friend to environmentalists. Soon after arriving in Washington, he cast a key committee vote against President Bush's "Clear Skies" proposal for overhauling rules for coal-fired power plants -- despite support for the proposal from his home state's influential coal industry.
Obama won back some support from coal interests in 2006 when he joined up with Sen. Jim Bunning, the Kentucky Republican, to push huge subsidies for developing liquefied coal as an alternate transportation fuel. If realized, the technology would greatly increase demand for coal in Illinois and elsewhere, but environmentalists are dead set against it, saying it would produce even more climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions than using petroleum in cars. Liquefied coal's proponents say the emissions could be reduced by capturing and storing carbon dioxide, but that technology is years away from being realized and would add greatly to the cost of the fuel.
Under fire from environmentalists, Obama a year ago backed away from his alliance with Bunning, voting against a large package of subsidies for the technology and for a more limited package that was opposed by the coal industry; in the end, neither passed.
The episode left many in the coal industry upset with Obama, and, while environmentalists were pleased with his change of heart, they were puzzled over his flirtation with an idea they scorn.
On the presidential campaign trail, Obama has made clear his support for serious limits on carbon emissions, while here and there mentioning, as Clinton does, that he would continue to pursue research into capturing and storing emissions from coal-fired plants, so that the country can continue to use its abundant supply of the fuel, which now provides about half the country's electricity.
His campaign Web site states bluntly that he will "use whatever policy tools are necessary, including standards that ban new traditional coal facilities" to deploy low carbon coal technology and that his "stringent cap on carbon will also make it uneconomic to site traditional coal facilities and discourage the use of existing inefficient coal facilities."
With the Kentucky ad, Obama seemed to swing back toward his earlier pro-coal stance. The ad made no mention of his call for capping carbon emissions, for example. And, to environmentalists' dismay, it used the phrase "clean coal," which they note has a specific meaning when used by the coal industry. Obama appeared to be referring to a future when carbon emissions from burning coal can be stored underground, but the industry uses the phrase in advertising to refer to its reduction of other forms of pollution from burning coal, often creating the false impression that it has already found a way to burn coal without causing carbon emissions.
"There's a tremendous lobbying and propaganda campaign by coal interests to assert that coal is clean and wonderful and almost as good tasting as apple pie," said Frank O'Donnell, the president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington advocacy group. "That's a diversion away from one of the big pending issues, which is that coal burning one of the biggest sources of carbon emission in the country."
It remains to be seen whether Obama will feel the need to moderate his tough climate change proposals in a pro-coal direction in the general election. His campaign has not made much of an effort to compete in the coal-heavy states of Kentucky and West Virginia -- or in coal-producing western states, such as Wyoming and Montana -- but the industry also holds sway in the general election swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania.
"He's always tried to walk a line by saying, 'I want a cleaner environment but I sure don't want to hurt the coal industry,'" said O'Donnell. "That's a very delicate line to walk."
Posted at 8:10 PM ET on May 20, 2008
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