Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me

Democratic Presidential hopeful, Barack Obama is beginning to feel some heat — from all sides of the issue — for his on-again, off-again support for coal-to-liquid (CTL) technologies. His claims that he can bridge the gaps between disparate world views are being panned as “rookie
” and are causing both sides to question where he really stands.

For the past several years, the junior Senator from Illinois has been willing to stand by a struggling southern Illinois coal industry. As we noted in this blog, he has openly supported the industry in votes and with legislation like the Coal-To-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2007. So many in the coal industry believed that Senator Obama’s credentials as a coal supporter were solid.

At the same time, many environmental groups were angry with Obama for his support of a broader conception of sustainability — one that included social and economic sustainability, as well as environmental — and his apparent willingness to work with the coal industry to achieve that sustainability. Those groups saw Obama’s support of even the newest and most efficient clean
coal technologies as the point at which they needed to part ways. Many of these groups refuse to accept coal-based energy for any reason; after all it’s coal. Nothing more need be said. In their minds coal is an outdated and dirty fuel and nothing can be done to redeem its reputation — no amount of technological advancement, no reduction in emissions, no improvement in efficiencies will be good enough.

Additionally, with global pressure mounting for a climate change mitigation strategy, these environmental groups saw Obama’s early support of clean coal technologies (CCT) as many saw Brutus’ final offering to his long-time friend Caesar; “et tu B?”

The greens, however, were not silent on this issue and their prolonged, vocal resistance to his seemingly coal-friendly attitudes finally hit a nerve in the Obama campaign. On Tuesday, June 19th Obama responded with the following statement,

Achieving energy independence and significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions are two of the greatest challenges America faces. With the right technological innovations, coal has the potential to be a cleaner burning, domestic alternative to imported oil. However we are not there yet. The Bunning amendment would have been premature in requiring the production of billions of gallons of coal-to-liquids without providing strong environmental safeguards to ensure that this new fuel alleviates, not worsens, our climate crisis. The Tester amendment, on the other hand, gives us the tools to determine whether we can make coal into a clean fuel source. We cannot solve the climate crisis without addressing coal – which generates half of America’s electricity.”

“Moving forward, I believe we should only invest in coal-to-liquid fuels that burn at least 20 percent less lifecycle carbon emissions than conventional fuels. I also introduced a low-carbon fuel standard to mandate a 10 percent reduction in emissions for all vehicle fuels by 2020, with incentives for producers to make their fuels more efficient and to exceed that level, without prejudging which fuel will turn out to be the best for our environment and our economy.

While his aides described this about face as a “clarification,” the media described this new position as “backtracking,” the coal industry saw the “clarification” as as a one-time ally turning his back on them, and the environmental groups saw it as a definitive victory.

As the debate over this issue progresses, however, it seems that neither side is
willing to wholly accept the Senator’s “clarifications,” or attempts to “form alliances across
traditional divides
.” As decisions and votes are made and
millions of investment and construction dollars sit in limbo, lines are being drawn and ambiguity in the Senator’s position is causing people on both sides of the CTL issue to question his core motivations.

“He’s absolutely flip-flopped. We’re totally confused,” Rentech chief executive Hunt Ramsbottom said.

Murray Energy Corp. Chief Executive, Robert Murray added,

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

On the other side of the issue, some members of the green movement are feeling equally betrayed,

After reading the Washington Post’s story you come away with the feeling that Barack Obama comes out looking a lot more like a talented but still ordinary politician rather than someone truly revolutionary who is going to lead the way to a new kind of politics.

As this bit of CTL confusion subsides, it seems that Obama has spent a fair bit of political capital with his changing views on our coal resource. One can be absolutely sure that politcally savvy pundits, government officials, industry employees, and environmentalists will be a little more careful with any news or support they receive from the Obama camp in the future.

As the old saying goes, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

27. June 2007 by
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