Burning Tires and Liquid Coal: The Clinton-Obama Energy Plan

Until recently, href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/01/09/AR2007010901503.html">Obama supported "coal to liquid" technology, which allows auto fuel to be squeezed out of coal. He touted it as a way to free America from reliance on Saudi oil fields and to tackle global warming. However, coal-to-liquid technology produces twice the amount of greenhouse gases that regular old oil does; additionally, it's so expensive that it's unlikely to displace one drop of cheap Saudi oil anytime soon.

So why would he back it? What's more, why did he vote for other anti-environment policies, such as President Bush's 2005 energy bill, which funnels more than $27 billion in taxpayer subsidies to big polluters?

A huge factor in Obama's decisions was his desire to support Illinois agribusiness (Bush's energy bill contained massive ethanol subsidies) and the southern Illinois coal industry. His votes mean that he's willing -- sometimes, at least -- to put these kinds of parochial interests ahead of the global environment and Americans' health (pollution from coal-fired power plants kills href="http://www.cleartheair.org/proactive/newsroom/release.vtml?id=19080">more than 30,000 people every year, according to EPA consultants Abt Associates).

Obama has explained his positions by saying that sometimes you need to "trim your sails" -- by which he means cutting back on goals to avoid becoming marginalized.

But it's exactly that kind of political calculation -- special interests versus doing what's right -- that Obama is promising to reject.

So is there any hope for the Democrats' energy policy, or will it just be a liberal version of Bush's polluter bonanza?

The environmental and energy platforms of former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and Connecticut senator Chris Dodd provide some reason for optimism. While all of these Democratic presidential candidates have in the past surrendered to big polluters on key issues, lately they've been showing real grit when it comes to defending the planet.

Edwards has called for a ban on construction of coal-fired power plants that don't capture all their greenhouse gases. He also has released an ambitious plan to cut global warming pollution by 80 percent by 2050. Richardson has one-upped Edwards by proposing the same cuts by 2040 and speedier conversion to clean electricity sources and dramatic cuts in oil consumption. Dodd has gone even further and proposed to complement measures like those with a carbon tax.

Best of all, an outcry from environmentalists and the media recently convinced Obama to retreat from his full-throated support for coal to liquids, saying he would only back coal to liquids projects if environmental safeguards reduced their greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below that of regular gasoline. The new policy isn't perfect (and still falls short of other candidates' positions), but it's a positive indicator that Obama is flexibile enough to respond to constituent demands for a strong environmental policy.