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The Top Story: Obama and coal

The Top Story by Chris Graham

A funny thing happened on the way to me writing the story about how out of touch Barack Obama is on the Southwest Virginia coal industry. Turns out that he’s not.

“The truth is that if Sen. Obama has his way, and we impose these massive new taxes on coal, we’re going to see thousands of Virginia coal miners and thousands of coal miners all across the country out of a job,” Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling said today on a conference call with reporters to talk about Obama’s third visit to Southwest Virginia in a month. But Obama has actually been a darling of the coal industry for his work in the Senate with Kentucky Republican Jim Bunning, among others, to promote coal-to-liquid technologies that has in turn led to some pointed criticism for Obama from environmentalists whom you would otherwise assume would be solidly on the Obama team. “The rationale is, We have a lot of coal in the ground, let’s put it to some use,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of the Washington, D.C.,-based nonprofit group Clean Air Watch. “It’s not the best use of the coal, and it’s one that’s almost certain to exacerbate the global-warming problem,” said O’Donnell in an interview with the Washington Post last year in which he also speculated that Obama’s advocacy of coal liquefaction might have to do with his getting “hammered” by Illinois coal interests.

So the greens are up in arms because Obama wants, as is detailed on his campaign website, to pursue the development and deployment of clean-coal technology, and says his administration would provide incentives to accelerate private-sector investment in commercial-scale zero-carbon coal facilities and would instruct the Department of Energy to enter into public-private partnerships to develop five commercial-scale coal-fired plants with carbon capture and sequestration. How, then, does this jibe with what Bolling had to say about Obama being out of touch on the issue as he did today?

Short answer: It doesn’t.

“I can’t think of anything that would be worse for the economy of Southwest Virginia than to impose massive new taxes on a source of energy that we should be promoting, not trying to adversely impact,” Bolling told reporters on the call, after Republican Sen. John Warner, who should know better, joined in the partisan attack. “Coal clearly is our main source of fuel. Over 50 percent of our energy is dependent upon that. We must continue to support the coal industry and their efforts to try and make the emissions from the stack cleaner,” Warner said on the call. “With that effort by industry and the coal miners, we cannot put further tax on coal, and we certainly don’t want to refer to it as the source of dirty energy,” Warner said.

The “tax” that Bolling and Warner are referring to is a reference to a single quote that Obama offered in an interview earlier this year in which he was quoted as saying that he would support taxing “dirty energy” such as coal and natural gas without being quoted on the specifics of how that would be done. There is nothing in the Obama campaign platform that offers any details as to how a “dirty energy” tax would be designed or implemented.

Both Obama and Republican presidential candidate John McCain support the institution of a cap-and-trade program aimed at reducing carbon emissions, and though neither refer to that kind of program as a tax, the sum effect on energy producers and consumers would be quite similar.

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