Where Do McCain and Obama Stand on Energy?

Cartoon by Nitrozac and Snaggy--the last panel of which was used to illustrate a blog post I wrote for the Daily Yonder, commissioned on the recommendation of Betsy Taylor. Nitrozaz is a.k.a. Liza Schmalcel (interview) and Snaggy is a.k.a. Bruce Evans.

The piece appeared 11/3/08 under the title, "How will Obama or McCain Power the Nation." I had the pleasure of the help of July Ardery (email) as my editor, who also selected the illustrations. Thanks also to my friend from NewsTrust, Chris Finnie, of Finnie communications, who gave me feedback on the rough draft and submitted and reviewed it at NewsTrust. Here's what I wrote...


Energy. Jobs. The environment. As Michael A. Livermore, Executive Director of NYU Law School's Institute for Policy Integrity, has written, "The challenge for the next administration is to find policies that produce simultaneous economic, environmental, and energy benefits, rather than force these policy goals to fight each other in a lose-lose battle."

Like other Americans, folks in rural areas are examining senators Barack Obama and John McCain in the light of fears about a faltering economy and with high gas prices a recent memory. Many worry that the U.S. has been delaying action on climate change, with possible dire effects on agriculture and forestry. And beyond the general concern about the carbon footprint of coal-fired electric plants, those of us in Appalachia face increasing destruction of our home places from mining as companies use mountaintop-removal to raze the mountains for coal -- what has been called “strip mining on steroids.”

During his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention on August 28, Obama explicitly linked energy, climate change and jobs, declaring his goal to "end our dependence on oil from the Middle East" in ten years:

"Washington's been talking about our oil addiction for the last thirty years, and John McCain has been there for twenty-six of them. In that time, he's said no to higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars, no to investments in renewable energy, no to renewable fuels. And today, we import triple the amount of oil as the day that Senator McCain took office.

"Now is the time to end this addiction, and to understand that drilling is a stop-gap measure, not a long-term solution. Not even close.

"As President, I will tap our natural gas reserves, invest in clean coal technology, and find ways to safely harness nuclear power. I'll help our auto companies re-tool, so that the fuel-efficient cars of the future are built right here in America. I'll make it easier for the American people to afford these new cars. And I'll invest 150 billion dollars over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy - wind power and solar power and the next generation of biofuels; an investment that will lead to new industries and five million new jobs that pay well and can't ever be outsourced."

McCain, in his acceptance of the Republican nomination on September 5, did not make so specific a linkage between energy and jobs. Sen. McCain emphasized that he favors fuel economy and increased use of wind and solar energy but differentiated himself from Obama by supporting increased drilling and nuclear power.

"We'll attack the [energy] problem on every front. We'll produce more energy at home. We will drill new wells off-shore, and we'll drill them now."

"...We'll build more nuclear power plants. We'll develop clean-coal technology. We'll increase the use of wind, tide, solar, and natural gas. We'll encourage the development and use of flex-fuel, hybrid and electric automobiles.

"Senator Obama thinks we can achieve energy independence without more drilling and without more nuclear power. But Americans know better than that.

"We must use all resources and develop all technologies necessary to rescue our economy from the damage caused by rising oil prices and restore the health of our planet."

In the rural U.S., federal energy policy has special consequences, so let's look at where McCain and Obama stand on several key energy issues.

stated his opposition to the Yucca Mountain Repository (for spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste), which McCain supports.

On June 25, McCain highlighted his plans for nuclear energy when he announced his "Lexington Project," “[n]amed for the town where Americans asserted their independence once before.” McCain described his plan "to achieve strategic independence" from imported oil supplies by 2025, calling for 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030 with the ultimate goal of 100 new plants.

Offshore drilling: Sen. McCain strongly supports increasing offshore drilling for domestic oil. Obama had opposed offshore drilling, but in August modified his position, saying he would consider permitting new drilling operations in order to reach a compromise on energy legislation. (The 27-year-old moratorium on offshore drilling expired September 30, after no such compromise was reached.) Despite government assessments that have concluded that such drilling would not affect gasoline prices significantly "before 2030," recent polls have shown public support for drilling.

Coal technology: Both candidates say that they support "clean coal" technology, including carbon capture and storage, although the economic viability of such technology has not been demonstrated. Both candidates support “cap and trade ” to reduce carbon emissions contributing to climate change. Under this system, companies would be bound by emissions limits and also receive carbon credits; to exceed their emissions limits, companies would have to buy credits from other operations that have brought their pollution below federally mandated levels. Obama's plan would charge for all carbon credits, while McCain would give an unspecified number of free credits to companies. Some experts have criticized “cap and trade” saying that this system has failed in Europe and that a carbon tax would be more effective.

Wind and Solar: Both candidates support increased use of wind and solar power, although development of both technologies has been hindered by tight credit and falling prices for coal and natural gas. According to the New York TimesThomas Friedman, McCain has missed eight votes on tax credits for wind and solar while campaigning, thus allowing the credits to expire in December. Obama also has missed votes on this issue but according to Friedman voted for the credits on three occasions.

The next president, alone, will not be responsible for U.S. energy policy. Energy issues were contentious during the passage of the 2007 bill and nothing of significance has passed in 2008. And, as the Washington Post noted on October 31, the Bush administration is pushing to promulgate additional regulations before leaving office, which may tie the hands of the next president.

To explore further the candidates' positions on energy and climate change see "The Candidates and Climate Change: A Guide to Key Policy Positions," by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. The New York Times also has a good comparison of the candidates' energy policies, as does the Apollo Alliance.