Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Senator Obama Yields to Grassroots Pressure, Says No to Dirty Coal-to-Liquids Fuel

Apparently yielding to consistent grassroots pressure chastising Barack Obama for his long-held support for coal-to-liquids (CTL) technology as a way to reduce American oil dependence, the Illinois senator and Democratic presidential candidate issued a statement today backing off of his support for coal-to-liquids synthetic fuels.

Environmentalists and progressive groups have been hitting Senator Obama with petitions and letters recently, arguing that coal would produce a dirty alternative fuel and exacerbate global warming pollution at a time when we cannot afford to adopt a more carbon-intensive replacement for gasoline.

Lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions for CTL synthetic fuels are up to twice as high as gasoline if emissions at CTL plants are not captured and sequestered. Even if carbon capture and storage technology is utilized at a CTL plant, the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of CTL synthetic fuels range from only moderately better to slightly worse than gasoline.

In response to criticism of his support for CTL fuels, the LA Times reports that Senator Obama quietly issued a statement to the heads of several environmental groups today saying:

"Senator Obama supports research into all technologies to help solve our climate change and energy dependence problems, including shifting our energy use to renewable fuels and investing in technology that could make coal a clean-burning source of energy," the email said. "However, unless and until this technology is perfected, Senator Obama will not support the development of any coal-to-liquid fuels unless they emit at least 20% less life-cycle carbon than conventional fuels. [emph. added]"

At issue is legislation, introduced in January by Senator Obama and Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY), that would give the coal industry tax breaks and other incentives to harness the abundant but environmentally damaging natural resource as an alternative fuel. Obama and Bunning have been leading a bipartisan group of senators who have promoted CTL as a way to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil.

The LA Times reports that Obama's aides described the statement as a "clarification," distributed to correct what they said were false media reports describing the senator's views on the issue.

However, that attempt to spin Senator Obama's new position on CTL contradicts the fact that, unlike other CTL legislation introduced on the House side, Obama's CTL bill does not require CTL plants to sequester emissions or have a lower lifecycle emissions intensity than gasoline to receive federal incentives.

Obama's “Coal-To-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2007” does provide incentives for plants to utilize carbon capture and sequestration, but does not require it, and the bill would extend loan guarantees for construction and direct loans for the planning and permitting of CTL plants as well as offer investment tax credits and fuel excise tax exemptions for CTL, regardless of the lifecycle greenhouse emissions of the CTL process being utilized.

Since producing CTL fuel without sequestering plant emissions is considerably cheaper than the alternative, it is highly unlikely that the bulk of CTL plants supported by Obama and Bunning's proposed legislation would end up utilizing carbon capture and storage. The result would be the expanded use of an alternative fuel with lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions roughly twice as bad as gasoline. Not exactly the kind of green bona fides you would expect from a senator and presidential candidate who has been highlighting his 'strong' position on climate change, a point grassroots activists, environmentalists, progressives [and this blogger] latched on to in letters and petitions questioning Senator Obama about his support for CTL.

Other environmentalists point to the destructive impact of coal mining, including the strip mining and mountain-top removal widely practiced in the United States, as reason to oppose expanded use of coal for fuel, regardless of it's impact on climate change.

Obama's recent statement has sparked confusion among coal industry officials, who until Tuesday had viewed Obama as an ally on the issue, and drew cheers from environmentalists, who described it as a good step forward.

"What we're seeing, particularly with Obama's statement, is that there's a race to the top among the Democratic candidates for the strongest position on how to solve the climate crisis," said Ilyse Hogue, campaign director for the progressive advocacy and active 'netroots' group, MoveOn.org, which was one of several groups waging a petition drive opposing the coal legislation.

"If Obama in fact goes along with the position he articulated, then that puts him ahead of where he was," she said.

"To us, the coal issue is a real test about whether the presidential candidates are serious about addressing the climate crisis or whether they're playing politics with the future of the planet," said Ted Glick, coordinator of the U.S. Climate Emergency Council, an advocacy group that this week began distributing a petition criticizing Obama's support for the coal industry plan.

"You claim to be a different kind of politician and yet you push legislation that does not have America's best interest at heart," the petition says.


This is a great step forward for Senator Obama, and more evidence that the right combination of grassroots pressure, online petitioning and letter writing, and hard work on the ground can work to shift candidates' and legislators' positions on climate change issues.

There is clearly a lot of work left to be done, and its only going to be more and more important for those of us expecting strong leadership on climate change from the 2008 presidential candidates to keep up the pressure as the election progresses, particularly during the primaries.

The primaries are the period of time when democratic candidates will be most receptive to pressure on climate change as they will be looking to shore up support amongst progressive and environmental voter bases. Once the general election starts, the Dems will be more likely to focus on shoring up support amongst more moderate, conservative and independence demographics - it's the old 'run left/right during the primary and back to the center during the general' routine that characterizes American elections. (I guess this is one upside to the ridiculously long primary campaign season this election!)

As far as Senator Obama's position on climate change goes, it seems obvious to me, but bares stating that just because Obama is apparently no longer supportive of coal-to-liquids unless it is at least 20% better on a GHG-intensity basis than gasoline doesn't mean he is fully committed to the kind of comprehensive action to tackle climate change we're going to need from our next president.

This is a step in the right direction for Obama, but we're going to need to keep the pressure on him and make it clear that this isn't enough. Obama has still yet to distinguish himself with a very comprehensive or innovative energy and climate change strategy and his policy proposals on his websites' energy and climate page displays the kind of incremental, 'inside-the-box' thinking that doesn't inspire much confidence in me at this point.

And while he has now committed to supporting the Boxer/Sanders-bill calling for an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050, he originally only supported the much weaker (and insufficient) McCain-Lieberman bill and didn't sign on to the Boxer/Sanders bill until four months after the bill was introduced and 11 other senators had already co-sponsored it. (The same can be said for Senator Clinton as well; John Edwards was the first major candidate to support the 80% by 2050 goals).

And at a fundraising luncheon in Silicon Valley in March, Obama told attendees that his support for the Boxer/Sanders bill was largely symbolic since it probably wouldn't pass! (See this post for the details)

The question really is this: is Obama - or any other candidate for that matter - exhibiting leadership on climate change, or followership?

Is he proactively leading our country to solving the climate crisis, or is he simply responding to grassroots pressure from folks like us who he knows are going to be a key part of his primary election voter base?

What we need is a strong leader, someone committed to making a bold and aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goal the centerpiece of his or her campaign and presidency.

The next president of the United States will not only have to deal with undoing eight years of heel-dragging and back-sliding during the Bush Administration, but will also have to lead our nation and the world to tackling climate change, a monumental task requiring a true leader.

If, by the end of the next president's term in 2012, the United States doesn't have a comprehensive greenhouse gas reduction plan well in place and we aren't leading an international response to the climate crisis with buy-in from developing countries like China, India and Brazil, we're basically sunk - we'll be too late to adequately respond to climate change and we'll be faced with adapting to a drastically different - and harsher - world.

That's why this election should be SO important to anyone concerned about climate change and the fate of the planet.

We need to take a close look at both the leadership skills each candidate has exhibited as well as the specific policies they have proposed. Look past the 60-second sound bites and stump speeches and really take a look a their voting record and issues page on the websites. Steve Kirsch has done some pretty detailed delving into the positions of the three major democratic candidates - Obama, Clinton and Edwards - and what he finds may be interesting to you.

Climate change should be THE issue of the 2008 elections and deserves your attention. Put each candidate to the test and see if they're up to leading this country and the world to quickly and boldly solve the climate crisis.

And in the meantime, we should keep up the pressure on Obama and the other candidates and hopefully help transform each of the candidates into champions of climate solutions. Clearly we're making progress, and wherever a candidate is, they can certainly afford to be pushed further to take bold action on climate change!


[A hat tip to Jaime at Its Getting Hot In Here]

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