Obama faces coal conundrum

While championing an energy revolution, the Democratic hopeful continues to support an inefficient industry he cannot afford to lose.

Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) greets supporters during an event at Mountain Range High School in Westminster, Colorado, September 29, 2008.      REUTERS/Jason Reed      (UNITED STATES) US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN 2008  (USA) *** Local Caption ***  OBA04_USA-POLITICS-_0929_11.JPG
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Denver // Barack Obama likes to portray himself as the ultimate environmentalist, but on the issue of coal, the Democratic presidential candidate's green ideals bump up against hard political and economic realities. Mr Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden, are promising to lead the United States though an energy revolution that will create five million jobs in renewable energy, reduce dependence on foreign oil and cut carbon emissions. But the Illinois senator comes from a state that mined more than 27 million tonnes of coal in 2007, earning about US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) in revenues for coal firms there. Mr Obama cannot afford to lose voters in coal-producing constituencies, nor risk higher energy costs with the economy in turmoil. Many environmentalists cringe when Mr Obama touts "clean coal" as the way of the future. "There is no such thing as clean coal," said Jonathon Dorn of the Earth Policy Institute. "If we want the world to move forward we must leave coal behind." There is no denying that Mr Obama faces a serious coal conundrum. The United States is a major coal producer and consumer, yet globally, the burning of coal accounts for 40 per cent of world carbon-dioxide emissions. "There will be no solution to climate change minus a solution on coal," said Jonathan Banks of the Clean Air Task Force. Both Mr Obama and John McCain, the Republican candidate, support the development of so-called "clean coal" plants, which would capture and bury carbon-dioxide emissions. Environmentalists say such technology is decades away from being implemented on a large scale, and may not be economically viable once they are. In 2007, Mr Obama shocked environmentalists when he introduced the "Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act", a bill that would have funded the creation of a coal-based liquid to run cars and power plants. Mr Banks said Mr Obama's support for the gasification of coal appears to reflect a position of pragmatism - that coal is not going away any time soon - and an understanding that liquefying coal may be the least offensive process from an environmental standpoint. "If you get real about coal, and accept the fact that it is going to grow - not go away but grow - then it is imperative we build plants that reduce emissions to a level we can live with," Mr Banks said. But some charge that the candidates are not making these decisions freely. The Center for Responsive Politics has reported that Mr Obama tops the list of US members of Congress receiving donations from the coal industry in the current election cycle. Mr Obama accepted US$248,000 in campaign funds, the centre reported, while Mr McCain's ticket pocketed US$93,000. "With so much coal industry money going into the campaigns," Mr Dorn said, "we cannot expect a truthful dialogue on this issue." Despite his uneasy affair with the coal industry, Mr Obama has put forward a comprehensive environmental platform, one that promises to make the United States a leader on climate change by committing to a programme that would reduce 80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Yet as the US economy lurches towards recession, fuel prices skyrocket and unemployment rates soar to a seven-year high, that goal seems to clash with economic realities. Coal still provides half of the electricity in the United States and more than 80,000 mining jobs. Last week, a former Colorado congressman claimed the Obama-Biden ticket represented a "threat" to the Rocky Mountain state's energy needs. Colorado produces 32.6 million tonnes of coal per year, making it the country's seventh largest coal producer, and the state gets 73 per cent of its energy from coal. "Coal is a critical resource for this nation," said Scott McInnis, a former Republican member of the House of Representatives, during a conference call with reporters and party members. Mr McInnis was seizing on a comment Mr Biden made during a recent campaign stop in Ohio that "we are not supporting clean coal". In fact, the Obama-Biden energy plan calls for investment in "low-emissions coal plants", and the creation of the world's first coal-fired factories that would practice capture-and-bury technology. When Republicans seized on Mr Biden's comment, the Obama campaign was forced to back pedal, claiming the Delaware senator was talking about China's outdated coal plants, not those in the United States. The Biden gaffe could cause headaches for the Obama campaign in several battleground states, including Pennsylvania and Virginia - both of which rely heavily on coal for energy. Environmental groups say the argument disguises a key statistic - even though coal output has climbed by almost one-third in the past two decades, the industry now employs half as many people as it did 20 years ago. There may be far more potential in renewable energies such as solar, biofuels and wind energy, according to Mr Dorn. "Renewable energy creates 40 per cent more jobs per dollar invested than the coal industry," he said. "It's to no one's advantage to stay with coal." gpeters@thenational.ae