The Green Gripe With Obama: Liquefied Coal Is Still . . . Coal.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has reintroduced the Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2007. It's a development that has the coal crowd cheering.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has reintroduced the Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2007. It's a development that has the coal crowd cheering. (Charles Dharapak - AP)

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By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Who, but who, would soil the environmental reputation of Barack Obama?

The Democratic senator from Illinois gets stellar marks from greens. Just a few months ago he was calling global warming "real," saying: "It is here. . . . We couldn't just keep burning fossil fuels and contribute to the changing atmosphere without consequence."

So why then, environmentalists ask, is Obama backing a law supporting the expanded use of coal, whose emissions are cooking the globe? It seems the answer is twofold: his interest in energy independence -- and his interest in downstate Illinois, where the senator's green tinge makes the coal industry queasy.

The coal industry praises Obama's reintroduction, with Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), of the Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2007 last week, which would provide incentives for research and plant construction. The industry says the technology, which converts coal into diesel engine fuel, would reduce America's dependence on foreign oil through a new, home-mined fuel that burns as cleanly as gasoline.

Environmentalists say focusing on coal does nothing to arrest climate change. Instead, they say, lawmakers should back cleaner alternative fuels and stricter automobile and industrial emissions standards.

"The rationale is, 'We have a lot of coal in the ground, let's put it to some use,' " said Frank O'Donnell, president of the D.C.-based nonprofit group Clean Air Watch. "It's not the best use of the coal and it's one that's almost certain to exacerbate the global warming problem." Obama's advocacy of coal liquefaction, he said, might have to do with his getting "hammered" by Illinois coal interests.

National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich counters that "our friends in the green community . . . don't want us to use our most abundant fuel," and adds: "They're sort of indifferent to the trend line toward greater importation of transportation fuels."

Coal liquefaction, Popovich said, is "used quite extensively in countries like South Africa."

David G. Hawkins, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in Senate testimony in April that "while it appears that technologies exist to achieve high levels of control for all or most of these pollutants, the operating experience of coal-to-liquids plants in South Africa demonstrates that coal-to-liquids plants are not inherently 'clean.' "

Popovich concedes the point: "Liquefied coal produces a diesel fuel cleaner than other diesel fuels, not necessarily cleaner than conventional gas," he said.

What about Obama? "Senator Obama has introduced legislation to drastically increase the production of biofuels like ethanol, and has authored legislation to increase fuel economy standards that would eventually save us 4.3 million barrels of oil a day and would reduce global warming," Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.

And, oh, yes: "Illinois basin coal has more untapped energy potential than the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined. Senator Obama believes it is crucial that we invest in technologies to use these resources to reduce our dependence on foreign oil."


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