Last week I wrote about how we can expect the McCain campaign to attack Senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden over their position on coal. Sunday, the attacks began:

Seizing on a recent comment Biden made in Ohio that he and Obama don’t support “clean coal” plants in the U.S., former Gov. Bill Owens and Scott McInnis, a former member of Congress, said the Democratic ticket owed an “explanation” to voters about where the state’s energy is going to come from. “They are coming to a state where 73 percent of the energy needs are met by coal,” said McInnis during a conference call. “Coal is a very critical resource for this nation.”

Obama’s campaign insists he does support the use of clean coal.

“Senators Obama and Biden are committed to investing in clean coal and developing five ‘first-of-a-kind’ commercial scale clean coal-fired plants in the U.S.,” he said.

This matters in Colorado because we are a large producer of coal.

Colorado produces 36 million short tons of coal per year, ranking it seventh in the country. About 70 percent of the state’s electricity is generated by coal, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. Wyoming is the country’s leading producer of coal, and Montana is the fourth-biggest producer.

Sen. Obama’s energy plan is laid out on his website. Under the heading of “Create 1 million new jobs” it states:

Develop and Deploy Clean Coal Technology.

Obama’s Department of Energy will enter into public private partnerships to develop five “first-of-a-kind” commercial scale coal-fired plants with clean carbon capture and sequestration technology.

Who’s right? A review of Obama’s stated positions and legislative actions on coal over the years show he is mostly pro-coal. In June, 2007, The Washington Post reported on Obama’s long record on coal issues, dating back to his days as an Illinois state legislator. In 2004, he bucked the environmentalists and argued for “huge federal subsidies for liquefied coal for transportation fuel, a technology that the Illinois coal industry views as a salvation.”

In 2005:

Obama….attached a provision to the 2005 energy bill for $85 million over five years to test using Illinois coal to produce transportation fuel.

In 2006:

[I]n April 2006, he was approached by Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), who was also interested in the technology. Over several months, Bunning staff member Bill Beaver and Obama energy aide Todd Atkinson drew up a package with $20 million grants for facility designs, accelerated loan guarantees, an extension of tax credits applicable to coal-to-liquid, provisions for military supply contracts and investment tax credits of up to $200 million for each of the first 10 plants to be built. Altogether, the package could be worth $8 billion.

Obama and Bunning unveiled it in January. “The people I meet in town-hall meetings back home would rather fill their cars with fuel made from coal reserves in southern Illinois than with fuel made from crude reserves in Saudi Arabia,” Obama said.

In early 2007, he did the same, but shifted gears somewhat shortly thereafter.

After co-sponsoring legislation earlier this year for billions of dollars in subsidies for liquefied coal, Obama more recently began qualifying his support in ways that have left both environmentalists and coal industry officials unsure where he stands. His shift has helped shape this month’s Senate debate over how to reduce both dependence on foreign oil and carbon dioxide emissions; on Tuesday, he voted against one proposal to boost liquefied coal and for a more narrowly worded one. Both failed.

In June, 2007:

[H]is Senate office quietly sent out a clarification of his coal-to-liquid position, saying he would support subsidies only if the fuel could be created with 20 percent lower carbon dioxide emissions than petroleum-based fuels. The statement dismayed those pushing coal-to-liquid, who noted this would require technological leaps even beyond perfecting carbon storage.

….Last week, Obama voted with the majority against coal-to-liquid incentives proposed by Bunning, despite teaming up with him six months ago. He voted for subsidies with language requiring 20 percent lower emissions, which allowed him to show some support for the technology. This, too, failed to pass, with many Republicans taking the industry view against the emissions requirement and many Democrats opposing any coal-to-liquid subsidies.

In response to critics,

Obama’s staff says he has been consistent on the issue, viewing coal as a way to ease dependence on oil imports while taking into account its threat to the climate. “With the right technological innovations, coal has the potential to be a cleaner burning, domestic alternative to imported oil,” Obama said last week. “We cannot solve the climate crisis without addressing coal — which generates half of America’s electricity.”

And, in March, 2008, much to the dismay of environmentalists, Obama said in West Virginia:

“We could be investing in renewable sources of energy, and in clean coal technology, and creating up to 5 million new green jobs in the bargain, including new clean coal jobs.”

Speaking in West Virginia this month, the Richmond Times Dispatch reports Obama told the crowd coal was “key to America’s future.”

Obama has campaigned for development of “clean coal” technologies such as turning coal into gas and storing carbon emissions from power plants before they reach the smokestack. Yesterday, his supporters stressed that Obama’s calls for more reliance on renewable energy do not mean an uncertain future for coal.

“Senator Obama is a friend of coal,” said Rep. Rick Boucher, D-9th, before a roaring, capacity crowd of about 2,400.

USA Today also reported on Obama’s support of coal as a state legislator, providing these votes:

  • In 1997, he voted to divert sales taxes to a fund for grants to help reopening closed coal mines and “incentives to attract new businesses that use coal.”
  • In 2001, Obama voted for legislation that offered $3.5 billion in loan guarantees to build coal-fired power plants with no ability to control carbon emissions.
  • In 2003, he voted to allow $300 million in taxpayer-backed bonds to build or expand coal-fired power plants.

On the 2005 energy bill that Obama voted for and McCain voted against:

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.”

Last week, the Charleston Gazette reported that McCain and Obama agree on one coal position:”They agreed that mountaintop removal coal mining should be stopped.”

As to the overall differences between the candidates energy plans, the Times Dispatch provides this summary:

Obama’s energy plan calls for:

  • Investing $150 billion over 10 years to spur private development of clean energy sources, a plan Obama says will also create 5 million jobs. Among the types of innovations Obama hopes to foster is the clean coal technology.
  • Putting a million made-in-America, plug-in hybrid cars — each one capable of getting 150 mpg — on the road by 2015.
  • Ensuring that 25 percent of the nations electricity comes from renewable sources — not coal — by 2025.
  • And cutting greenhouse gas emissions — another problem associated with coal-fired power plants — by 80 percent by 2050.
  • McCain’s energy plan calls for:

  • Expanding exploration for domestic oil and using more of the nation’s natural gas.
  • Offering a $300 million prize for the commercial development of a battery technology that will prompt the development of plug-in hybrid cars. The plan also calls for a $5,000 tax credit for people who buy cars that emit no carbon — an incentive for automakers to create such cars.
  • Constructing 45 nuclear power plants by 2030.
  • And slashing greenhouse emissions to 60 percent below their 1990 levels by 2050.
  • It seems to me Obama has a ten year record of been very friendly to coal, far more than the environmentalists would like.