The McCain campaign is trying to sway coal state voters by selectively quoting from a 10-month-old interview to allege that Obama plans to "bankrupt the coal industry" with his plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin kicked off the last-minute attack Sunday during an appearance in Marietta, Ohio. At about the same time, clips of select portions of Obama's January comments to the San Francisco Chronicle surfaced on conservative blogs and Web sites.
But Obama campaign officials, and Chronicle editors, said the Illinois senator's remarks were taken greatly out of context.
And, the "cap-and-trade" carbon dioxide control plan Obama advocates is one of the generally accepted proposals for trying to deal with climate change - and a plan that Republican John McCain has also embraced.
Joseph Romm, a former Clinton Energy Department official and physicist who writes the Climate Progress blog, conceded "an inartful choice of words by Obama."
"But fundamentally, his remarks reflect an accurate understanding of the impact - indeed, the goal - of serious climate regulations, if we ever get around to them," Romm wrote in a Monday-morning blog post.
During a Jan. 17 interview with the Chronicle's editorial board, an editorial writer noted that Obama co-sponsored a bill to encourage turning coal into liquid fuel for vehicles, an approach energy experts warn would likely create more greenhouse emissions than traditional gasoline. The editorial writer asked Obama how he squared his support for coal with the need to do something about climate change.
Obama responded that the country needs to "figure out how we can use coal without emitting greenhouse gases and carbon," and that he believes a "cap-and-trade" emissions program is the best way to do that.
Such a program would put an overall ceiling on greenhouse gas emissions. Companies would need "allowances" from regulators for every ton of carbon dioxide their facilities pump into the atmosphere. Companies could reduce their emissions to meet the caps. Or they could buy or trade for "allowances" to keep using older facilities.
"That would create a market in which whatever technologies are out there being presented, whatever power plants are being built, they would have to meet the rigors of that market, and the ratcheted down caps that are imposed every year," Obama told Chronicle editors. "So if somebody wants to build a coal power plant, they can, it's just that it would bankrupt them because they're going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that's being emitted."
During her Marietta appearance, Palin said only that Obama had said, "Sure, if the industry wants to build new coal-fired power plants, they can go ahead and try, but they can do it only in a way that will bankrupt the coal industry, and he's comfortable letting that happen."
Palin also alleged that the San Francisco paper, which endorsed Obama, had hidden the coal remarks from its readers and the general public.
"Why is this audio tape just now surfacing?" Palin asked, drawing shouts of "liberal media!" from the crowd at her Marietta rally.
But John Diaz, editor of the Chronicle's editorial pages, said the entire audio and video of Obama's interview has been available online for months at http://www.sfgate.com/ZCDP.
"Obama hardly sounded like a man determined to shut down the industry," Diaz wrote on a newspaper blog. "What the Illinois senator offered was a textured explanation of his determination to encourage cleaner coal technologies."
Palin's attack drew a flurry of responses from Obama supporters, including Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who called her comments "absolutely ridiculous" and "exactly the kind of deceptive politicking voters are fed up with."