Coal Fuels A Debate Over Obama

Then-State Sen. Barack Obama toured an Illinois coal facility in Carterville in 2004 with Director John Meade. (By Ceasar Maragn -- Associated Press)
By Alec MacGillis and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 24, 2007

BENTON, Ill. -- In 2004, as a state legislator running for the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama came to this small town 300 miles from Chicago to pledge support for southern Illinois' struggling coal country.

More than just an obligatory visit to the more conservative and rural part of the state, it was a chance for Obama to affirm his reputation as the rare politician who could see both sides of an issue and form alliances across traditional divides.

"It doesn't matter if you are a Republican or Democrat, you've got to be able to work with people to accomplish some common-sense policies and make people's lives a little bit better," he said from the steps of the county courthouse.

Three years later, with Obama now a candidate for president, his embrace of southern Illinois and its dominant industry is showing signs of strain. Obama finds himself caught between his advocacy of huge federal subsidies for liquefied coal for transportation fuel, a technology that the Illinois coal industry views as a salvation, and environmental groups that reject it as a boondoggle that would set back efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the fight against global warming.

After co-sponsoring legislation earlier this year for billions of dollars in subsidies for liquefied coal, Obama more recently began qualifying his support in ways that have left both environmentalists and coal industry officials unsure where he stands. His shift has helped shape this month's Senate debate over how to reduce both dependence on foreign oil and carbon dioxide emissions; on Tuesday, he voted against one proposal to boost liquefied coal and for a more narrowly worded one. Both failed.

More broadly, Obama's contortions on coal point to the limits of the role he likes to assume, that of a unifier who can appeal across traditional lines and employ a "new kind of politics" to solve problems. In reaching out to the coal industry, some observers say, he may have been trying to show that he is a different sort of Democrat, but the gesture had the look of old-style politicking and put him in a corner, where he wound up alienating some on both sides of the issue.

"He was trying to throw a bone to the southern Illinois coal interests . . . and was surprised when people started saying, 'What the heck are you doing?' " said Frank O'Donnell, president of the environmental group Clean Air Watch. "That's a rookie mistake for a presidential candidate, to think you can get in the middle of a controversial issue and no one will notice."

Obama's staff says he has been consistent on the issue, viewing coal as a way to ease dependence on oil imports while taking into account its threat to the climate. "With the right technological innovations, coal has the potential to be a cleaner burning, domestic alternative to imported oil," Obama said last week. "We cannot solve the climate crisis without addressing coal -- which generates half of America's electricity."

Obama's winding path on coal can be traced to 1997, when, as a state senator, he made a long trip to a golf outing hosted by a fellow legislator near Benton. The visit, as he later recalled, gave him a memorable glimpse of a region that shares more with Kentucky than with Northern Illinois -- Carbondale, the area's biggest town, is closer to Tupelo, Miss., than to Chicago.

By the time Obama ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, the region was suffering. The Clean Air Act of 1990 discouraged use of the area's high-sulfur coal, and instead of investing in scrubbers to clean it, most Illinois utilities opted to bring in low-sulfur coal by train from the West. Mine employment in Illinois plummeted from 15,000 in 1990 to 4,000, leaving largely untapped the state's huge bituminous coal reserves -- 100 billion tons, a quarter of the nation's total and enough, the state's top coal lobbyist says, to power the country for 200 years.

On 2004 campaign visits to the region, Obama stuck up for the coal industry by criticizing pollution rules proposed by President Bush that Obama said unfairly favored Western coal and rallying behind workers who had lost their health benefits in mine bankruptcies.

After his election, Obama's commitment to the region was quickly tested. On the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, he found himself the deciding vote on Bush's "Clear Skies" initiative to replace rules for coal-fired power plants with a system of pollution credits, which environmentalists attacked as a risky loosening of limits.

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