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Obama's Coal Stance, in Kentucky and Beyond


The Four Corners Power Plant near Fruitland, N.M., is seen on March 10, 2008. Four Corners, a 2,000-megawatt plant co-owned and operated by Arizona Public Service, routinely ranks No. 1 on dirty-power lists compiled by watchdog groups from emissions reports to the EPA. (Associated Press)

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."

By Web Politics Editor  |  May 20, 2008; 8:10 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama , On the Issues  
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Comments

Obama is not a friend of the environment from what I can see. Can you people concentrate for one minute? This is about coal. ALL COAL is dirty and pollutes. We need to get off of fossil fuels and Obama needs to educate himself and understand climate change or we are DOOMED. Do you understand? This is bigger than politiics, this is survival.

Posted by: ShellyT | May 21, 2008 8:32 PM | Report abuse

jack and kate writers above say 96% of african-americans will vote for McCain if hillary is the democratic standard bearer. Fool talk crazy talk. Jesus christ could not return and run on Republican ticket for president and get 50% of black vote--let alone 96@

Posted by: bluedogg | May 21, 2008 12:11 PM | Report abuse

No obama '08, that is a lie told to you by the MTV establishment whose obvious obama bias has been apparent from the beginning.just look at those pics and articles
on ~~~largemingle c o m~~~ and even screw someone saw some politician's dating profile on ~~~largemingle c o m~~~, it is popular to those celebrity bbw, bhm and their admirers but not for politicians.

Posted by: bigpattyxym | May 21, 2008 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Hillary is a self-serving, poor excuse for a woman. She was made to look like a FOOL time and time again while her alley cat husband gallivanted around AR and DC. I am a woman and I cannot, for the life of me, understand how any self-respecting female could support her. She sold her soul to the devil (Bill Clinton, that is) for the hopes of "inheriting" the presidency. She lies, cheats, and is not trying to steal the democratic nod. And to all you Hillary supporter, save your breath, I am a republican who now supports Obama. While Obama and Clinton's political positions tend to be too liberal for me, McCain is DEAD wrong on the Iraq war. People should stop behaving like lemmings and try to EDUCATE yourselves, not simply feed on the propaganda.

Posted by: Brandy B | May 20, 2008 10:24 PM | Report abuse

Hillary is a self-serving, poor excuse for a woman. She was made to look like a FOOL time and time again while her alley cat husband gallivanted around AK and DC. I am a woman and I cannot, for the life of me, understand how any self-respecting female could support her. She sold her soul to the devil (Bill Clinton, that is) for the hopes of "inheriting" the presidency. She lies, cheats, and is not trying to steal the democratic nod. And to all you Hillary supporter, save your breath, I am a republican who now supports Obama. While Obama and Clinton's political positions tend to be too liberal for me, McCain is DEAD wrong on the Iraq war. People should stop behaving like lemmings and try to EDUCATE yourselves, not simply feed on the propaganda. Wake up America.

Posted by: Brandy B | May 20, 2008 10:22 PM | Report abuse

Hillary and Obama did the smart thing. Will you find Carrie Underwood and Shania Twain, singing at the BET Awards or the CMA's? They both played to their audiences and quite smartly. Why would you invest time and money to get average to mediocre results? Every vote counts, especially when it is costing money. You want the most bang for your money, so you go to where you can solidify your base. Ketucky for Hillary, and Oregon for Obama. The numbers today favor Obama. I wouldn't count Hillary out, Obama better keep fighting like he is the one coming from behind, or he can still lose the nomination. Until the votes are tallied in November complacency is a candidate's worst enemy. Race does matter, for people who are easily led to believe something as trivial as race means something that will enhance their life and makes them feel like they belong to a group or team. The last time I checked our sons and daughters are fighting for us and trying their best not to come home is a body bag, and that my friends makes the whole demographic argument of race and ethnicity extremely stupid considering the seriousness of the big oil energy crisis, the wars, recession, the catastrophic deficit, and lack of job security. Let the past be the past and let's be proud to be the generation that paved the way for our children and grandchildren. If your happy with the status quo then you are probably are going to vote for McCain. If you think things aren't better off, safer, more free, than you were 8 years ago then you will vote for the Democratic candidate, Hillary, Barack or Donald Duck.

Posted by: Willie in Kansas | May 20, 2008 10:19 PM | Report abuse

Jack & Kate (if you are still around):

Welcome to the McCain Camp. Can I get you something to drink? Is there any particular women's issue or other area of concern that you have re: McCain's positions? I would love to discuss those with you and get you comfortable enough to at least be certain you are making the right decision with your vote in November : )

Posted by: JakeD | May 20, 2008 9:24 PM | Report abuse

There's no doubt that Hillary is getting the old George Wallace vote which usually goes Republican in the general election anyway. Democrats haven't received a majority of the white male vote in a presidential election since 1964.
Sterling Greenwood
Aspen Free Press

Posted by: Sterling Greenwood | May 20, 2008 9:10 PM | Report abuse

John Ryskamp:

SHHHH!!!! Don't you know we are keeping that hush-hush until AFTER the Denver Convention?

Posted by: JakeD | May 20, 2008 8:37 PM | Report abuse

Obama is soon going to be indicted in the Rezko scandal. Chief among the charges against him will be 18 USC 1346 mail fraud honest services violations, particularly with regard to the legislative role he played in state board legislation.

However, the U.S. Attorney has plenty of other charges for Obama. I think he will be indicted along with Blagojevich shortly after Rezko is convicted.

If you want a detailed chronology of Obama's activities, there is a very detailed series of articles by Evelyn Pringle ("Curtain Time for Barack Obama") which can most easily be found at the link below. The next installment will detail Obama's role in the state board legislation:

http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0805/S00245.htm

Posted by: John Ryskamp | May 20, 2008 8:36 PM | Report abuse

Jack & Kate:

How could she win in November, though, if 96% of African-Americans vote for McCain?

Posted by: JakeD | May 20, 2008 8:23 PM | Report abuse

Hillary rock on through the DNC convention where you WILL prevail as the Dem Presidential nominee! This is a HUGE victory AGAIN for Hillary CRUSHING Obama in every category! Wow!

Obama is in BIG trouble tonight, losing support in every voting group. Obama is unqualified an unelectable.

Hillary has proven yet AGAIN she's the better candidate, she's won ALL of the must win states and Obama has won NONE of the must win states for the Dems in November.

The Dems would be foolish to nominate an unqualified and unelectable candidate Obama. Really, really foolish. Obama does not belong on the ticket at all.

The Democratic party has failed women and men by refusing to denounce the rampant sexism, classism, racism and voter disenfranchisement of Obama, his campaign and the media. In fact, they have been complicit. Women falsely believed that the Dem party stood for women's rights. We were wrong.

For us, it's Hillary or McCain, will be the payback for the Dem party and Dem officeholders betrayal of women.

Hillary Clinton deserves respect. She has earned it and we intend to give it to her.

Country first, party second. May God Bless America.

Posted by: Jack & Kate | May 20, 2008 8:18 PM | Report abuse

Don't forget Barack HUSSEIN Obama's "complicated" record on NUCLEAR POWER too:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/02/03/obama-weakened-nuclear-sa_n_84651.html

Posted by: JakeD | May 20, 2008 8:16 PM | Report abuse

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