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Barack Obama's Dirty Politics

Why did Obama introduce the "Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2007," a bill that would promote the use of coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, as a transportation fuel and make global warming a lot worse?
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Here's what Barack Obama has to say about global warming on his website:

We need to take steps to stop catastrophic, manmade climate change. If we do not act, the consequences will be devastating for future generations, especially for the poorest global populations.

Al Gore couldn't have put it better.

So why did Obama introduce the "Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2007," a bill that would promote the use of coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, as a transportation fuel and make global warming a lot worse?

There's a clue in the fact that the other champions of coal-to-liquid fuels in the U.S. Senate are Jim Bunning of Kentucky and Larry Craig of Wyoming, both Republicans.

Yes, Illinois, Obama's home state, is, like Kentucky and Wyoming, a major coal-producing state. Nearly 32 million tons of coal was mined in Illinois in 2005, generating nearly $1 billion in revenues for the state's producers.

Big coal companies and their allies in the United Mine Workers union want us to fill our gas tanks and airplane jet engines with a liquid fuel made from coal, which is abundant in the U.S. They call it a step towards energy independence. Peabody Energy, the nation's largest coal company, which is based in St. Louis, is a big backer of coal-to-liquid tech.

When Obama introduced the coal-to-liquids bill back in January, he drew catcalls from environmentalists. Frank O'Donnell, the executive director of a Washington group called the Clean Air Watch, told Grist's Amanda Griscom Little: "Obama may be a climate crusader, but in this case he's marching in the wrong direction."

Now, as his presidential campaign gathers momentum, Obama's position will get more unwelcome attention. Along with other coal-state lawmakers, including two powerful House Democrats from Virginia, Nick Rahall and Rick Boucher, Obama backs massive federal subsidies for coal as a so-called alternative fuel.

As Edmund Andrews reported in an excellent front-page story in The New York Times:

Prodded by intense lobbying from the coal industry, lawmakers from coal states are proposing that taxpayers guarantee billions of dollars in construction loans for coal-to-liquid production plants, guarantee minimum prices for the new fuel, and guarantee big government purchases for the next 25 years...

Among the proposed inducements winding through House and Senate committees: loan guarantees for six to 10 major coal-to-liquid plants, each likely to cost at least $3 billion; a tax credit of 51 cents for every gallon of coal-based fuel sold through 2020; automatic subsidies if oil prices drop below $40 a barrel; and permission for the Air Force to sign 25-year contracts for almost a billion gallons a year of coal-based jet fuel.

Environmentalists are appalled. Frances Bienecke, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me: "If you fill your Prius with liquid coal, it would be like driving a Hummer." She described the coal-to-liquids proposal, as now written, as "an ecological disaster." You can download an NRDC report on coal-to-liquids here.

An MIT researcher told The Times that "at best, you're going to tread water on the carbon issue and you're probably going to do worse."

Coal-to-liquids technology has a less-than-illustrious history. Known as the Fischer-Tropsch process, it was used by Germany during World War II and by South Africa during the apartheid era because both countries had access to coal but were unable to obtain oil on international markets.

But the problem with the technology isn't its history. It's the fact that no coal-to-liquids plant built on a commercial scale has been able to capture and store carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that causes global warming. Without carbon capture and sequestration, studies show, turning coal into liquid fuel generates 125% more CO2 than producing diesel fuel and 66% more than burning gasoline.

An Obama spokesman told Grist that the senator "believes that through investment and innovation, we can make these technologies cleaner." The trouble is, the massive federal subsidies now being proposed do not require that energy companies deploy technology to capture and store carbon.

I take no pleasure is saying that this will damage Obama. I read his autobiography, Dreams From My Father, a few months ago, and came away very impressed. I want to believe that he is a different kind of political leader.

But by supporting a Big Coal boondoggle, Obama is not simply disappointing those voters who care about environmental issues.

He is undermining his own claim to be above politics, to be the kind of leader who looks beyond narrow, parochial interests to do what's right for all Americans.

Energy independence is a laudable, if elusive goal, but the resource in short supply here is political courage.

Originally published at

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