WASHINGTON — With pressure mounting on Democratic presidential candidates to adopt hard-line positions on curbing global warming, Sen. Barack Obama on Tuesday backtracked from his long-held support for a controversial plan to promote the use of coal as an alternative fuel to power motor vehicles.
The Illinois Democrat made his announcement with little fanfare -- in a dryly worded and technical-sounding e-mail sent late in the day from his Senate office to environmental advocacy groups -- and did not mention the issue during an appearance at a Brentwood gas station designed to shore up his green bona fides with a renewed call to nationalize California's ambitious goals for reducing carbon levels in fuel.
At issue is legislation, introduced in January, that would give the coal industry tax breaks and other incentives to harness the abundant natural resource as an alternative fuel. A bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Obama and Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), 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.
With his statement Tuesday, Obama seemed to be making his choice clear: pledging to oppose any plan to turn coal into liquid fuel unless it adhered to strict environmental safeguards.
"Senator Obama 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," the e-mail said. "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% less life-cycle carbon than conventional fuels."
Obama's aides described the statement as a "clarification," distributed to correct what they said were false media reports describing the senator's views on the issue.
But it sparked confusion among coal industry officials, who until Tuesday had viewed Obama as an ally on the issue, and drew cheers from environmentalists, who described it as a change.
"What we're seeing, particularly with Obama's statement, is that there's a race to the top among the Democratic candidates for the strongest position on how to solve the climate crisis," said Ilyse Hogue, campaign director for the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org, which has been waging a petition drive opposing the coal legislation.
"If Obama in fact goes along with the position he articulated, then that puts him ahead of where he was," she said.
The change by Obama reflects the political high-wire act facing Democrats as climate change emerges as a top-tier election issue.
In addition to Illinois, coal is a dominant political force in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, all key electoral states.
Although former Vice President Al Gore has helped make global warming a galvanizing issue for Democrats -- particularly among likely voters in next year's primaries -- many party strategists recall warily how, in 2000, Republicans successfully used Gore's support for environmental regulations to woo traditionally Democratic coal workers to the GOP fold. That helped send West Virginia's decisive electoral votes to George W. Bush.
"To us, the coal issue is a real test about whether the presidential candidates are serious about addressing the climate crisis or whether they're playing politics with the future of the planet," said Ted Glick, coordinator of the U.S. Climate Emergency Council, an advocacy group that this week began distributing a petition criticizing Obama's support for the coal industry plan.
"You claim to be a different kind of politician and yet you push legislation that does not have America's best interest at heart," the petition says.
Although some activists welcomed Obama's changed stance on the coal legislation, industry officials on Tuesday were trying to make sense of his apparent change of heart.
"He's trying to walk a fine line, trying to be a good Democrat but at the same time recognizing that not only is Illinois well-served but he's serving the country with these incentives that could really stimulate the industry," said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Assn.
Popovich said the industry had been impressed by Obama's "willingness to take a stand that's unpopular with some of his party's constituents."
He called the senator's new statement the result of a "jihad" waged by some environmentalists against the coal industry.
"Clearly they are trying to intimidate Obama from doing something sensible," Popovich said.
Times staff writer Seema Mehta in Los Angeles contributed to this report.