Friday, June 15, 2007

A warmer climate for biofuels in Congress, but coal is more controversial; ask Obama

A Democratic energy bill stalled in the Senate yesterday, partly over Republican opposition to a mandate for more use of wind power, but opposition to a mandate for ethanol and other biofuels "has all but evaporated in Congress, a situation that would have been almost unthinkable just a few years ago," reports Steven Mufson of The Washington Post. "And though environmental, industry and farming groups can point to numerous unresolved concerns about biofuels' effects and feasibility, the ethanol lobby has never been stronger."

That's mainly because of increased concerns that imported oil is compromising national security, but also because the ethanol industry has spread beyond the Upper Midwest, Mufson writes. He also notes that former opponents of the federal ethanol subsidy, Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) are campaigning hard in Iowa, the first presidential-voting state and long an ethanol hotbed. (Read more)

But presidential politics appears to have cost another key energy player, the coal industry, the support of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama for an amendment that would "promote the use of coal as an alternative fuel to power motor vehicles," reports the Los Angeles Times. In what reporter Peter Wallsten called a "dryly worded and technical-sounding e-mail," Obama's office said he "supports research into all technologies to help solve our climate change and energy dependence problems, including shifting our energy use to renewable fuels and investing in technology that could make coal a clean-burning source of energy. However, unless and until this technology is perfected, Senator Obama will not support the development of any coal-to-liquid fuels unless they emit at least 20 percent less life-cycle carbon than conventional fuels."

Obama and Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., had "promoted the idea as a way to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil. But environmentalists charged that coal would produce a dirty fuel and exacerbate global warming, putting Obama in the awkward position of balancing the desires of an industry with a strong presence in his home state against those of a key voting bloc in the Democratic presidential primaries." (Read more) For Mufson's report on a Democratic measure that would provide loans for technology to keep carbon dioxide from coal-to-liquid plants from escaping into the atmosphere and adding to global warming, click here. For a story on the main energy bill being stalled, by Edmund Andrews of The New York Times, click here.

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