Energy: McCain and Obama share goals, if not strategies

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 20, 2008 

WASHINGTON — John McCain and Barack Obama share remarkably similar energy policy goals, but they disagree on how best to achieve them.

Both presidential candidates say it's imperative to reduce America's consumption of fossil fuels in order to slow global warming and to reduce the country's dependence on foreign suppliers.

"We have to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don't like us very much," McCain said in the final presidential debate. We must "take control of our own energy future and become once again the masters of our fate," he said in June in a speech on energy in Las Vegas.

"I will turn all the apparatus of government in the direction of energy independence for our country — authorizing new production, building nuclear plants, perfecting clean coal, improving our electricity grid, and supporting all the new technologies that one day will put the age of fossil fuels behind us," he promised.

"Alternative fuels, wind, tide, solar, natural gas, clean coal technology — all of these things we can do as Americans," he said in his Oct. 7 debate with Obama.

Obama agrees that America's dependence on oil is "a threat to our national security, our planet and our economy . . . We must act quickly and we must act boldly to transform our entire economy — from our cars and our fuels to our factories and our buildings."

"We can't keep on borrowing from the Chinese and sending money to Saudi Arabia. We are mortgaging our children's future," he said in the Oct. 7 debate. "We've got to have a different energy plan."

In the debate, Obama said the nation could create 5 million jobs by making "highly fuel-efficient cars, wind turbines and solar panels, the kinds of clean energy approaches that should be the driver of our economy for the next century."

The similarities between the candidates go beyond their goals to some of the means they would employ.

Both candidates support a "cap-and-trade" system to limit emissions of carbon dioxide by requiring polluting companies to buy tradable emissions permits. Both would encourage drilling for domestic oil and gas on land and offshore. Both support greater use of coal. Both say they would promote the development of renewable energy like wind, solar and geothermal power.

There are differences, however, in how the two men would begin the difficult transition to a more environmentally friendly energy future.

McCain wants to start building 45 new nuclear power plants right away. Obama said nuclear power should wait until safety and waste-storage issues are resolved.

Obama has proposed a windfall-profits tax on the largest oil companies to pay for energy rebates of up to $1,000. McCain opposes tax increases, but he favors tax incentives and "market forces" to get private industry to produce cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels.

McCain has proposed a project to achieve energy independence by 2025. Obama has a shorter timetable: "Our goal should be that, in 10 years' time, we are free of dependence on Middle Eastern oil,'' he said.

COAL

While both McCain and Obama say they support expanded use of "clean coal," as yet there is no coal-burning plant that's equipped to capture and bury carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. The cost of such a plant is high, and experts say it could be two decades before the technology is widely used.

McCain said he'd devote $2 billion a year for 10 years to develop commercial carbon capture and storage systems. "The federal government needs to make a commitment to advancing clean-coal technologies," his energy plan says.

"Coal will play a critical role in our energy future," the plan says. "While it is imperative that we advance clean coal technologies, we cannot stop our use of coal prior to the technology becoming market-viable."

Obama also wants greater use of coal. His plan calls for federal investment in "low-emissions coal plants."

Obama wants to provide incentives so that private companies don't have to bear all the risks and costs of new carbon capture and storage technology. He said he'd instruct the Department of Energy to enter into public-private partnerships to develop five new, commercial-scale coal-fired power plants with carbon capture and storage technology.

NUCLEAR POWER

McCain is bullish on nuclear power. He says it's the best way to solve the problem of climate change. He's called for building 45 new nuclear power plants "right away'' and proposed an eventual goal of 100 plants.

He insists that nuclear power is safe. "We've sailed Navy ships around the world for 60 years with nuclear power plants on them," he said at the last debate. "We can store and reprocess spent nuclear fuel . . . no problem."

Obama puts less emphasis on nuclear power but has promised that "We'll find safer ways to use nuclear power and store nuclear waste."

He doesn't set a numeric goal for new nuclear plants or call for starting to build more immediately.

"It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power as an option," his energy plan says. "However, before an expansion of nuclear power is considered, key issues must be addressed including: security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage, and proliferation."

RENEWABLES

Although both McCain and Obama pledge to support renewable sources of energy — wind, solar, biofuels and geothermal power — they disagree on how to do it.

Obama proposes government investments and federal standards for the development of develop renewable energy. McCain favors a more free-market approach, relying on incentives to stimulate private enterprise rather than government subsidies.

Both senators voted for last month's financial rescue bill that included a section renewing tax credits for renewables. McCain opposed such measures in the past.

"I'm a little wary — I have to give you straight talk — about government subsidies," McCain said at a roundtable discussion in North Bend, Wash., in May. "When government jumps in and distorts the market, then there's unintended consequences as well as intended."

"I won't support subsidizing every alternative or tariff that restricts healthy competition," he declared in a South Carolina speech in December. "I'll encourage the development of infrastructure and market growth necessary for these products to compete and let consumers choose the winners."

Obama supports direct government contracts as well as tax incentives for solar, wind, biofuels and geothermal projects. He says he would double federal science and research funds for renewables. His goal is 2 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol, a renewable biofuel, by 2013. (Americans currently burn about 140 billion gallons of gasoline a year.)

Obama would set a federal standard requiring that 10 percent of the nation's electricity come from renewable sources by 2012 and 25 percent by 2025.

DRILLING

Both candidates support drilling new wells to produce more oil and gas on U.S. land and offshore, but McCain is much more enthusiastic about drilling than Obama.

McCain argues that trillions of dollars worth of U.S. oil reserves are going unused. "We can offshore-drill now. We've got to do it now," McCain declared in the last debate. "Drill, baby, drill," his supporters often chant.

We can offshore drill now. We've got to do it now. We will reduce the cost of a barrel of oil because we show the world that we have a supply of our own. It's doable. The technology is there and we have to drill now."

Obama would allow limited offshore drilling, but only as part of a larger energy package. "We can't simply drill our way out of the problem," he said.

Obama agrees with McCain that the nation needs to increase domestic oil and gas production. Obama said oil companies have access to 68 million acres, including 40 million offshore, that they're not using.

"Use them or lose them," Obama said in the last debate.

Both candidates oppose drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Irritating many conservatives, McCain disagrees with his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and the Republican platform adopted at the national convention last month, both of which support drilling in ANWR.

Obama said drilling in the Arctic would irreversibly damage the wildlife refuge without creating enough oil to have a noticeable impact of U.S. energy security.

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