Politics & Government

McCain, Obama sound alike on energy, but policies differ sharply

WASHINGTON — Voters have a clear choice on energy issues in this fall's presidential election.

However, it's not the choice that this week's torrent of rhetoric from presumptive presidential nominees John McCain or Barack Obama suggests.

Both have been touting positions that sound vaguely alike. Each has said he'd accept some offshore oil drilling, urge more nuclear power and accelerate alternative energy development.

At the same time, each has tried to demonize the other's approach.

"Senator Obama says he wants energy independence," said McCain in his Saturday radio address, "but he doesn't support anything that serves that goal."

Obama fired back, charging in an Indiana speech on Wednesday that "Senator McCain's energy plan reads like an early Christmas list for oil and gas lobbyists."

Neither statement is true.

McCain's energy plan has a lot of proposals for alternative energy, and Obama has timetables for weaning the United States off foreign oil.

But Obama and McCain aren't pushing identical plans, either.

"There are differences, mostly in what they would emphasize as president," said Bruce Bullock, the director of Southern Methodist University's Maguire Energy Institute in Dallas.

Obama, said analysts, would make government more involved in shaping the nation's energy profile. He's proposed consumer tax breaks, goals for fuel efficiency standards and timetables for developing alternative energy sources. He puts much more emphasis on conservation and alternative fuels than McCain does.

McCain has fewer precise benchmarks. He's said that the United States must aggressively pursue alternative energy sources, but also must "develop more existing energies like nuclear power and clean coal." He puts much more emphasis on developing conventional fuels than Obama does.

"Republicans are all about supply-side energy. Democrats are more about affecting the demand side," said Richard Kearney, the director of the School of Public and International Affairs at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

As a result, said Robert Kaufmann, the director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Boston University, there are "substantive differences." Among them:

  • Alternative energy. Obama wants a 10-year program to develop what he calls "climate-friendly energy supplies." He'd spend $150 billion to accelerate the production of plug-in hybrid automobiles and to double the amount of energy from renewable sources by 2013.

Obama also would set a goal of reducing oil consumption by 35 percent by 2030. He hopes to increase the auto fleet's average fuel efficiency to 49 miles per gallon within 18 years.

Bullock noted that such a big increase in fuel efficiency would require "a complete hybrid fleet or vehicles that only ran on alternative fuel," which he called unlikely in such a short time.

McCain doesn't set such benchmarks and doesn't make alternative energy a centerpiece of his program.

He'd provide a tax credit for consumers who buy zero-emission cars, and offer a $300 million prize to whoever could develop technology to power a mass-market plug-in hybrid or electric car.

  • Rebates. Obama would give many families "energy rebates" of up to $1,000, funded by a windfall profits tax on oil companies. He also wants to release some oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. McCain opposes those measures.
  • Chad Stone, the chief economist at Washington's Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal research center, praised the rebate idea, saying it would provide important relief from soaring winter heating bills. Other analysts note that it would diminish the incentive that high prices give people to conserve fuel.

  • Drilling. McCain makes lifting the 27-year-old ban on offshore drilling a central part of his energy plan, and his ads trumpet it as a major difference with Obama.
  • Obama, McCain said, "believes every domestic energy source is a problem. I believe every energy source needs to be part of the solution."

    McCain switched his position to favor drilling in June. He'd open most offshore areas, but allow states a veto over drilling off their shores.

    Obama softened his opposition to offshore drilling last week, saying he'd accept some drilling as part of a comprehensive energy plan like the one being proposed by a bipartisan group of 10 senators.

    Their plan would create a 50-mile buffer on the East Coast, as well as off Florida's west coast. Only Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina would be permitted to start oil and natural gas exploration outside the buffer.

  • Nuclear power. McCain wants to see 45 new U.S. nuclear power plans built by 2030. He'd use Nevada's Yucca Mountain as the nation's nuclear waste repository.
  • Obama backs what his campaign spokesman Bill Burton calls "safe and secure nuclear energy." Before expanding nuclear capacity, Obama wants to assure the security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage and proliferation.

    Among his ideas is to "accelerate research into technologies that will allow for the safe, secure treatment of nuclear waste."

    The two differ on other energy proposals as well, such as:

    • Obama would require new buildings to be carbon neutral or produce zero emissions by 2030; McCain wouldn't mandate any standards.
  • Obama would phase out traditional incandescent light bulbs in five years; McCain is mum on the subject.
  • Some experts wonder if voters are getting any of this.

    "The debate has been almost ethereal," said Kearney. "It's all so tangled."

    On the Web:

    John McCain's energy plan

    Barack Obama's energy plan (.pdf)

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