Let's review: In Act One, Barack Obama clasped hands with the coal industry and promised subsidies for liquefied coal fuel. In Act Two, environmentalists growled that Obama was backing one of the worst technologies ever devised from the standpoint of global warming, and, eventually, the senator backed away, which in turn made the coal industry very upset. So now we've reached the finale, in which Obama tries to pacify all sides with a clever compromise:

[T]his month, his 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.

The thing is, the coal industry's quite right to be dismayed. No one's even come close to figuring out how to develop a coal-to-liquid fuel with a lower emissions profile than plain old gasoline. Right now, even under the most optimistic assumptions--say, engineers figure out how to sequester carbon underground and actually keep it there--liquefied coal fuel will be no better than the status quo. That's the best case scenario. And that assumes some serious technological leaps.

But let's say Obama's fantasy scenario comes true, and someone develops a kinder, gentler, cleaner liquid-coal fuel. (Baard Energy has claimed that it might be possible.) Obama's position would still make environmentalists upset, and rightfully so. After all, those coal subsidies would still cost billions, and that means billions that can't be spent elsewhere, on far more effective strategies to reduce greenhouse emissions. Like efficiency measures. Or renewables. Heck, even just using coal to generate electricity for plug-in hybrids would be preferable to liquid-coal fuel. (The coal industry just wouldn't be able to get as many handouts.) And that's why Obama's vote to shovel $200 million in grants and $10 billion in loans toward "greener" coal gasification projects made enviros so angry.

There's no satisfying compromise here, and Obama can't just rise above politics as usual--at least not on this issue. Either he supports the liquid-coal boondoggle or he doesn't. As the Washington Post points out, trying to reach out to both sides just ends up pleasing no one.

--Bradford Plumer