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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)

In recent weeks, Obama's new friends in the coal industry have seen him start to drift. On June 12, he introduced a proposal modeled on the California approach to reducing the carbon dioxide content of tailpipe emissions. He has endorsed reducing all carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

And this month, his Senate office quietly sent out a clarification of his coal-to-liquid position, saying he would support subsidies only if the fuel could be created with 20 percent lower carbon dioxide emissions than petroleum-based fuels. The statement dismayed those pushing coal-to-liquid, who noted this would require technological leaps even beyond perfecting carbon storage.

"He's absolutely flip-flopped. We're totally confused," Rentech chief executive Hunt Ramsbottom said.

Obama's shift also left many environmental activists cool. They warn against providing any subsidy to launch the development of the coal-to-liquid industry, no matter what the restrictions. "We're very concerned that this could be a pretty dirty camel that has its nose under the tent," said David Hawkins, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center.

Last week, Obama voted with the majority against coal-to-liquid incentives proposed by Bunning, despite teaming up with him six months ago. He voted for subsidies with language requiring 20 percent lower emissions, which allowed him to show some support for the technology. This, too, failed to pass, with many Republicans taking the industry view against the emissions requirement and many Democrats opposing any coal-to-liquid subsidies.

But those on both sides of the issue agree that the politics of coal are not going away for Obama, given the concerns about oil dependence, the push to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and the abundance of coal buried in his home state.

These riches are on display at Murray Energy Corp.'s American Coal Co. mine in Galatia, Ill., which employs 970 and produces 8 million tons of coal per year. One day last week, 600 feet below ground and 3.5 miles from the elevator shaft, six miners crouched in a five-foot-high passage to operate a giant drum studded with tungsten carbide tips. It churned along an 850-foot-long face, shearing hunks of coal into a conveyor belt and crusher. As the machine advanced, miners rushed to adjust hydraulic supports that kept the rock above from collapsing. By shift's end, the shearer would cut the face back 20 feet and produce 3,000 tons of coal.

Back above ground, Murray Vice President John Forrelli displayed maps showing a swath of reserves stretching up to the center of the state, with Murray alone holding rights to 803 million tons nearby. Expanding mining, though, depends on Obama and others in Congress. Chief executive Robert Murray, a former coal miner, does not hold out much out hope.

"On the one hand he says he's for CTL, but then he voted against it," Murray said. "I'm going to assume that he is not a friend of coal."

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