Friday, July 18, 2008


Ken Dilanian, USA Today In May 1998, at the urging of the state's coal industry, the Illinois Legislature passed a bill condemning the Kyoto global warming treaty and forbidding state efforts to regulate greenhouse gases. Barack Obama voted "aye."

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee now calls climate change "one of the greatest moral challenges of our generation," and proposes cutting carbon emissions 80% by 2050. But as a state senator, from 1997 to 2004, he usually supported bills sought by coal interests, according to legislative records and interviews.

Obama is not the only politician whose public stance has shifted on global warming, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says has been caused chiefly by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas. Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, who now backs limits on carbon emissions, was among 95 U.S. senators who voted in 1997 to oppose the Kyoto Protocol, an emissions reduction scheme that had been negotiated by then-vice president Al Gore.

Still, Obama, who touts his independence from special interests, made a point of embracing the coal industry as part of his quest for statewide office. When he ran for U.S. Senate in 2004, he was flanked by mineworkers to proclaim that "there's always going to be a role for coal" in Illinois.

"He understands how important coal is to the state of Illinois and to the Midwest," said Illinois state Rep. Dan Reitz, a Democrat and former coal miner who sponsored the anti-Kyoto language and campaigned for Obama during the West Virginia primary.

Employees of coal companies and electric utilities have contributed $539,597 to Obama's U.S. Senate and presidential campaign, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. McCain, whose energy plan calls for taxpayers to invest $2 billion in "clean coal" research that includes technology to capture carbon emissions, has received $402,365 from coal and utility interests during the same period, since 2004 to the current campaign, according to the center.

The Obama campaign did not respond to questions about his support for the coal industry, except to address his 1998 Kyoto vote. The campaign said in a statement that the Kyoto treaty did not have "meaningful and achievable emissions targets," and that Obama "did not believe that state agencies in Illinois should unilaterally take steps to implement a global policy on their own.". . .

Obama's overall environmental record was exemplary, said Gene Karpinski, president of the Washington, D.C.-based League of Conservation Voters, which spent $400,000 to help Obama in the 2004 U.S. Senate primary.

In one of his first acts in the U.S. Senate, Obama bucked Illinois' energy industry and voted to kill a Bush administration air-pollution proposal opposed by environmentalists. "When forced to chose between the coal industry and the broader public interest, he chose clean air," said Jack Darin, head of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club.

Environmentalists were less pleased, though, when Obama voted for a 2005 energy bill opposed by McCain and most Democrats. Obama said he liked the bill's support for renewable energy. The bill contained $9 billion in coal subsidies, according to Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog group. The Natural Resources Defense Council said the bill "significantly weakens environmental protections."

Obama also drew criticism for sponsoring a bill in January 2007 to devote $8 billion in subsidies to a technology to convert coal to liquid fuel. The Sierra Club says liquid coal "releases almost double the global warming emissions per gallon as regular gasoline."


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