McCain and Obama: Comparing energy, climate change policies

The country is facing a compressed election cycle. In a couple of weeks early voting will start up pretty much all across the country. John McCain put additional pressure on the election cycle by naming the largely unknown Sarah Palin to his ticket. McCain has also changed position on many issues over the last few weeks to shore up his base.

Energy policy is near the top of the list of issues for most Americans. Which candidate’s energy policy dovetails with the most prudent climate change policy over the long-term?

Climate Change
This year the nation doesn’t have to argue with the presidential candidates about the facts around climate change. A few years ago McCain broke with his own party over the issue and criticized President Bush over Kyoto. Barack Obama identifies climate change as, “putting the planet in peril.”
Despite being called, “liberal,” by his opponents, Obama favors a cap and trade policy over a carbon tax to lower carbon emissions. He thinks that market forces can enforce policy. The senator has set specific goals for energy policy. For example, reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, and, “strategically investing $150 billion over the next ten years to catalyze private efforts to build a clean energy future.”

John McCain says he, “will establish a market-based system to curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, mobilize innovative technologies, and strengthen the economy. He will work with our international partners to secure our energy future, to create opportunities for American industry.” He favors climate policy, “Built on scientifically-sound, mandatory emission reduction targets and timetables.” McCain is advocating reductions in carbon emissions, including a 60% reduction by 2050.

Most Americans can see many reasons to move off oil as quickly as possible. Most of the reserves in the world are in politically unstable areas on the planet. Governments that are openly hostile to the U.S. control prices and distribution for the most part.

Oil is very expensive now and will probably stay that way due to economic expansion in India and China and peak oil.

Obama clearly wants to move away from oil. He sees it as a national security issue, environmental issue and economic issue. He wants to fund research and development for hybrids setting the mileage standard at 150 mpg. He’s pushing conservation by setting a goal for the U.S. to, “Within 10 years save more oil than we currently import from the Middle East and Venezuela combined.” He forecasts five million new jobs with his planned investment in clean energy.

Obama would mandate that all new vehicles sold have flex fuel capabilities. He would like to see “cellulosic ethanol, biobutenol and other new technologies that produce synthetic petroleum from sustainable feedstocks.”

McCain favors drilling in environmentally sensitive areas for more oil and gas. He once opposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and offshore. He’s changed his mind now. Drilling is the top strategy listed in his energy plan. He mentions the trillions of dollars worth of oil and gas reserves in the U.S.

Anyone that knows the industry also knows that these numbers are estimates. Until these areas are drilled no one really knows what is there. Most exploration leads to dry holes.

Energy policy
The topic of energy policy requires voters to predict the future. You will need to judge each candidate both on what they say and how they have acted.

Both candidates seem to say a lot of the right things about moving off oil. However, their plans include technology that is not ready for prime time, for example, McCain is now talking up oil shale in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, ignoring the fact that oil shale has been the, “next big thing,” for over 100 years.

Both Obama and McCain are touting the well-known oxymoron, “Clean Coal.”

Obama is advocating an all out effort to move off oil as soon as possible and his record on energy policy reflects this. He will support nuclear as a temporary program to move the U.S. away from oil. He prefers sustainable markets based on renewables. While he recently changed his mind about allowing offshore drilling he did so to hopefully get Republicans to the table to negotiate energy policy. In the short-term Obama supports a windfall profits tax on oil companies.

McCain’s goals are somewhat lower. For example, he favors a 60% reduction in carbon by 2050 vs. Obama’s 80%, along with using oil as a bridge to the future. His energy policy reads, drill for more oil domestically, build 45 new nuclear plants and invest $2 billion in clean coal. He claims that solar and wind are 10 years out. He does not support a windfall profits tax on oil companies.

McCain has a much longer history than Barack Obama. A recent article in The High Country News follows McCain’s record on environmental issues from the start — when he was mentored by liberal icon Mo Udall — to the present, where he looks the other way as uranium miners descend on the desert around the Grand Canyon. Why not let the miners make a little dough? We need the fuel for the 45 new nuclear plants. Uranium mining and milling has a checkered history here in the west.

Superfund sites dot the landscape.
The HCN article highlights another emerging trait of McCain. He chose a military base over the ecological health of the San Pedro River, a river he had once called a, “national treasure” whose loss would be a “national disaster.” He told constituents that, “It’s not a matter of whether it will dry up, it’s when it will dry up.” That position puts him pretty far away from his icon Teddy Roosevelt.
Obama has been a strong advocate for energy policy that will move the country off oil towards sustainable markets based on renewables. He will accept some compromises as wedges to get the nation towards the goal of energy independence and lower GHG emissions.

McCain seems to be morphing away from his environmentalism of the past towards the policies of George Bush: Oil and gas exploration and development, nuclear, ethanol and coal.

I think there is a clear distinction to be made here. Obama wants to move the country away from oil as quickly as possible. McCain will wait until the market chooses a winner.

More questions … no answers
A lot of questions need to be answered between now and Nov. 4. Will McCain put climate change policy near the top of the list for his administration or can we look at his recent moves and predict that he’ll support the status quo? Can Obama sell energy policy base on renewables and sustainability? Will the Palin choice effect McCain’s policy? Does he now owe climate change deniers and social conservatives something? What is the federal government’s role in building the infrastructure necessary to move energy generated by solar and wind to market? Will private industry invest the necessary capital for either plan?

I’m not confident at this point that these questions will be adequately answered. I do think that Obama has charted the clearest vision for moving the U.S. off carbon based fuels and that his policy fits best with sensible long-term climate change policy.

I worry that McCain will no longer give the environment a seat at the table if and when his administration gets started. Sometimes “market-based” is just a code word for doing nothing.

Denver-native John Orr is with Denver Public Works. He is the author of, the preeminent blog on water and environmental issues.

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