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Obama's Dirty, Coal-Loving Past

The coal industry says Obama's new energy rules are the product of his lifelong enmity. His record says otherwise.

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First thing next week, the Obama administration will announce major new restrictions on carbon emissions from existing coal-fired power plants, which will likely be the biggest step this country has taken to address climate change and almost certainly be the most consequential act of his second term.

The opposition is already painting this as a radical move by a died-in-the-wool tree-hugger. In fact, what both Obama’s allies and critics often overlook is that not that long ago, Obama was on the other side of the coal issue—far on the other side.

Less than a decade ago, Obama was a newly elected senator from Illinois eager to show that he represented the entirety of his state, not just Chicago. This wasn’t just to be a good senator—with his boffo 2004 “red and blue America” convention speech under his belt, he was crafting a political narrative for himself around the fact that he could appeal to rural, white voters. In his 2006 book “Audacity of Hope,” he rhapsodized about his first trip to southern Illinois, the “miles of cornfields” and roadside vendors with signs such as “Good Deals on Guns and Swords.” (Amazing stat: Carbondale, the biggest town in southern Illinois, is closer to Tupelo, Mississippi than it is to Chicago.) He liked to talk about the time in his 2004 campaign when he was met by cheering crowds in Cairo, the town at the very southern tip of the state that had been the scene of racial strife three decades earlier.

Well, Downstate Illinois doesn’t just have cornfields and guns. It also has a lot of coal, a swath of the Illinois Basin that also stretches into southern Indiana and western Kentucky. And on the campaign trail in 2004, Obama catered to the coal industry as assiduously as the most provincial politician. He criticized pollution rules proposed by President George W. Bush that Obama said unfairly favored lower-sulfur Western coal, which at the time was gaining market share at the expense of Southern Illinois mines. To repeat: George Bush, a close ally of the coal industry, was being criticized for overly strict pollution rules by Barack Obama.

When Obama got to Washington, his alliance with the industry was put to the test—the Bush administration came up with a new proposal, the “Clear Skies” initiative to replace rules for coal-fired power plants with a system of pollution credits. Environmentalists decried the shift as a risky loosening of limits. The Bush administration targeted Obama, but he ended up voting against the new approach, citing a different provincial concern: worries about air pollution in Chicago.

The bill died in committee, and Obama got an earful from his Downstate coal friends. To make up with them, he embarked on a crusade that is nothing short of astonishing in hindsight: he became a leading champion of coal-to-liquid-fuel technology. Converting coal to a diesel-like transportation fuel as a substitute for petroleum has an ignominious history: the only two regimes to have tried it at mass scale are Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. The process produces twice as much carbon emissions as petroleum does. On top of that, it’s incredibly expensive, with a then-estimated price tag of $4 billion per plant.

But that did not keep the U.S. coal industry from pushing the technology as a way to liberate the country from dependence on oil imports. And one of the industry’s main allies in this effort was Obama. In April 2006, he teamed up with none other than Jim Bunning, the eccentric, conservative Republican senator from Kentucky. Their aides drafted legislation calling for $20 million grants for facility designs, accelerated loan guarantees, an extension of tax credits applicable to coal-to-liquid, provisions for military supply contracts and investment tax credits of up to $200 million for each of the first 10 plants to be built. Altogether, the package could be worth $8 billion. “The people I meet in town-hall meetings back home would rather fill their cars with fuel made from coal reserves in southern Illinois than with fuel made from crude reserves in Saudi Arabia,” Obama said as he and Bunning unveiled the package in early 2007.

Environmental groups were aghast, and tried to impress on Obama just how destructive the technology was from a climate standpoint. Even if one managed to find a way to store underground the emissions produced during the conversion process—a feat that even now, a decade later, has yet to be proven workable—you’d still be left with total emissions no lower than from using petroleum. "We thought this was a mistake,” Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope told me later in 2007, when I reported a piece on Obama's conflicted relationship with coal for the Washington Post. “We let [Obama] know that we thought it was a mistake and why.” 

Obama got the message, and tried to step back from the perch he’d assumed, which proved extremely awkward. His 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. His coal industry allies were once again miffed, noting that this would require technological leaps even beyond perfecting carbon storage. “He’s absolutely flip-flopped. We’re totally confused,” Hunt Ramsbottom, one industry executive, said at the time. Even environmentalists were less than thrilled by Obama’s attempt to split the baby, worrying that it could be a first step toward funding the technology. “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. In the end, he voted against the proposal he had crafted with Bunning just six months earlier and for his revised one. Neither passed.

And now here we are, only seven years later, with Obama about to implement the toughest restrictions on coal that the country has ever seen. Hawkins, at NRDC, chuckled at the recollection of what he called Obama’s “youthful dalliance.” “It’s a tribute to the president as an individual that he learns things and he changes his views based on knowledge and information,” he said. “He signed onto that coal-to-liquids idea without any knowledge of the climate implications of it. At the time, he probably had some familiarity with the issue of climate change but not an in-depth one and he certainly didn’t have a deep understanding of the emissions consequences of the different fuel cycles. In the course of his first campaign [for president] he became quite well-informed on those.”

And, after that first campaign, he was no longer senator from the Illinois Basin but president of a country that faces serious, imminent consequences from climate change. Still, that even the liberal Barack Obama was so eager to defend his home-state industry is a sign of why, next week, Obama will be implementing these new limits by regulation, rather than trying to win the approval of a Congress with many other provincial-minded pols.