John McCain and Barack Obama are spending the final weeks of the presidential campaign painting two very different visions for the nation's energy policy. After a summer of record gasoline prices, both rushed to show their concern over anxiety at the pump. But the candidates have starkly different views on drilling, nuclear power and government investment in green technologies.
McCain is attuned to the nation's energy needs and environmental challenges. In 2003, the Arizona Republican co-sponsored the first Senate bill to cut greenhouse gas emissions. He supports a cap-and-trade system to cut emissions further, and he has faulted the Bush administration for failing to do enough to confront the impact of climate change.
But McCain is squarely focusing on the consumption side. His proposal to vastly expand drilling, including offshore, and to build scores of new nuclear power plants suggests he is more interested in meeting demand than managing energy as a resource. His support for renewable energy and for raising auto fuel-efficiency standards looks good on paper, but he has not offered meaningful targets. He has opposed public subsidies (beyond temporary tax credits) for exploring alternative energy, such as wind and solar power. At the same time, McCain has claimed dozens of nuclear plants could be built in the next several years, although permitting and building one take more than a decade.
Obama has a more balanced and forward-looking agenda. It is rooted in simple math: A nation that possesses 3 percent of the world's oil yet consumes 25 percent of its supply cannot drill its way to energy independence. The Illinois senator would increase domestic production in part by requiring energy companies to use or lose their existing leases to explore for gas and oil. But he also is more aggressive on conservation and sees emerging technologies as a source for millions of jobs.
Obama proposes spending $150-billion over 10 years to jump-start alternative energy - biofuels, renewables and other "clean" energy sources. He wants the United States to obtain one-fourth of its electricity from renewables by 2025. He wants to raise auto fuel-efficiency standards, but he also proposes recasting the focus of America's auto industry. He would use federal loans and tax credits to put more high-mileage hybrids on the road. He also has a tougher plan than McCain for cutting greenhouse gases.
Both candidates have acknowledged the human causes of climate change and the need to re-engage the United Nations in global energy and environmental issues. The two also recognize that China, India and other developing states are creating enormous problems by industrializing their societies with little regard for sprawl and air and water pollution. Those attitudes are a sea change from the Bush administration, which wasted eight years and a genuine opportunity overseas to get serious about climate change.
Obama, though, is the only candidate who has leveled with the American people that any lessening of our dependence on foreign oil also requires lifestyle changes. The issue is not cheap gas, but weaning ourselves from it. Gasoline prices dropped not because the McCain-Palin ticket threatened to "drill, baby, drill," but because $4-a-gallon gas drove Americans to drive less, take the bus and make smarter decisions about the cars they buy and how they get around. Obama and his Democratic colleagues in the Congress also promise to keep moving America in that right direction by investing more in mass transportation and other areas that help reduce America's reliance on foreign oil. This is a pocketbook and national security issue, and the two candidates are far apart.
This is the third in a series of editorials on key issues in the 2008 presidential election.