Mountaintop Removal near Blair, West Virginia

A mountaintop removal coal mining operation near Blair, West Virginia
Photo by The National Memorial for the Mountains

The U.S. Senate considered two amendments providing incentives for plants that can turn coal into a liquid fuel. (Turning coal into liquid fuel — CTL —is an old process, one that was last promoted in the U.S. by President Jimmy Carter during the 1970s energy crisis.) Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) sponsored one, and the other was proposed by Sen. John Tester (D-MT).

Both failed to pass, but before they were defeated, coal became an important part of the 2008 presidential campaign. And unlike the usual lockstep among Republicans and Democrats, when it comes to coal, there are real differences among the candidates.

The rush to turn coal into liquid fuels is a big deal in parts of the country — from eastern Kentucky to southern Illinois to the Powder River Basin in Wyoming.

Coal-to-liquid promises both jobs and worries about environmental degradation. In rural Kentucky there has been one marching-in-the-streets protest of massive CTL plans. The Kentucky governor is preparing to call a special session of the legislature. Gov. Ernie Fletcher wants to offer financial incentives to a slew of CTL plants — even as experts warn that CTL is no sure economic bet.

Presidential candidates have been falling on (or fleeing from) all sides of CTL. Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd is the most explicit opponent of coal-to-liquid, although he missed voting on the CTL portions of the energy bill vote. Republican Sens. John McCain and Sam Brownback were absent during the votes on both the CTL measures and the final energy bill (although the Daily Yonder happily recognizes Brownback was busy with a tour of rural Iowa during this time). Republican Mitt Romney recently mentioned liquid coal in a list of acceptable alternatives to imported oil. Sen. Hillary Clinton and John Edwards talk broadly about promoting “clean coal” technology.

Jim Bunning baseball card

Jim Bunning’s 1970 Topps baseball card

The most interesting relationship to surface in the CTL debate was an alliance between Sen. Barack Obama, the sleek Democratic candidate, and Jim Bunning the rough-talking ex-ballplayer and Kentucky Republican. Obama had been supportive of Illinois Basin coal in the past and Bunning asked if he would support his Coal to Liquid Fuel Promotion Act. Obama initially said yes. (Incidentally, in the first quarter of 2007, Obama received $154,000 in campaign contributions from the Chicago-based energy company Exelon, a possible beneficiary of CTL incentives.)

Sen. Obama from Illinois quickly learned that life was different as Democratic presidential candidate Obama. His sponsorship of Bunning’s CTL Energy Act garnered criticism from pro-environment groups. Obama began issuing clarifications and explanations, backing away from the Bunning proposal.

The Daily Yonder contacted the Obama campaign to clarify the Senator’s muddled early June “clarification” of his position. An Obama spokesperson emphasized that Obama supports coal-to-liquid if it will (1) help achieve energy independence and (2) fight climate change. However, the text of the 2007 Bunning-Obama act does not include carbon sequestration regulations.

The push for CTL subsidies hasn’t gone away. The Kentucky special legislative session will consider four plants in rural parts of the commonwealth. And with both the U.S. Air Force and the coal industry pushing, Congress is likely to take up the issue again.

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