June 14, 2008

Obama and McCain on Energy

After the American Century

John McCain and Barack Obama have both announced energy programs. McCain says that he is more "green" than Bush on the issue of global warming, but is this proclaimed difference really visible? To the casual observer, McCain and Obama might look similar on this issue. Both want to reduce US emissions of methane and CO2. By 2050 McCain says he will bring them down to just 40% of the 1990 level; Obama expects to reduce them ever further, to a mere 20%. These promises deal with the situation 42 years from now. Conceivably Obama might still be alive at that time, but such projections are not too meaningful by themselves.

A bit more concretely, both candidates like the idea of trading CO2 credits. This is not a new idea, and has been pushed by American representatives at climate meetings for years. The idea of turning pollution into a market, where the "right" to pollute is bought and sold appeals to US politicians because it makes the environment a part of business. Rather than set limits and then fine people for exceeding them, the notion is that corporations and cities will cut back on pollution if they get paid to do it. However, McCain wants to give away the initial quotas, at least the first time. Obama wants to sell pollution quotas and used the 150 billion dollars generated that way to support research into alternative energies and the like.

In line with this, Obama's goal is, by 2025, to produce 25% of all US electricity from wind, solar, biomass, and other sustainable sources. McCain has not set any definite goal, but claims that he supports alternative energies. In fact, he has a poor voting record in this regard.

With regard to ethanol, it is much the same story. Obama has a definite goal, while McCain "supports" the idea, but has no quota and in fact wants to stop subsidizing ethanol production. In other words, he says one thing but will do another.

Both candidates are realists, and can see that it is impossible to do away with coal-burning plants any time soon, but each wants to see "clean coal technology." Both also accept that atomic power can be an important source of electricity, but Obama is distinctly less enthusiastic about it. McCain sees atomic power as a good way to halt global warming, and admires the French for setting up such a comprehensive atomic power system, which supplies more than 75% of the nation needs.

The greatest differences between them lie in the area of curbing demand and conservation. Obama wants to convert all federal buildings to zero emission facilities and to give homeowners incentives for better insulation. McCain has no plans in this area at all. Likewise, Obama would give credits to utilities that managed to reduce customer demand, so they could profit not form growing the market but from shrinking it. McCain has no such plans.

Overall, Obama has made a greater commitment to alternative energy and to reducing demand. McCain sees nuclear plants as alternative energy, and seems not to understand that the most effective way to reduce oil dependency and CO2 emissions is to reduce energy use itself.

Overall, Obama has the more ambitious plan. McCain apparently thinks the market will solve the problem of global warming with the right incentives and leadership. Obama wants the government to invest directly in alternative energy R&D and set definite goals for conversion from the old system to a new, less polluting one. Where the Bush Administration at first questioned the reality of global warming and never made many efforts to change US energy use, McCain would at least rhetorically change the party line.

The basic McCain program looks quite a bit like that of Gerald Ford in 1975 . He claimed that if the US only would build a lot more nuclear plants and burn more coal, the nation could achieve energy independence by 1986. Obama's plan is more like that of Jimmy Carter, who also stressed alternative energies and greater conservation. Note that the public did not like Carter's plans, as they called for self-sacrifice and "the moral equivalent of war."

In 1980 Ronald Reagan proved far more popular with his energy plans, which basically denied that there was any real shortage. As he put it then: "Those who preside over the worst energy shortage in our history tell us to use less, so that we will run out of oil, gasoline, and natural gas a little more slowly. . . .But conservation is not the sole answer to our energy needs. America must get to work producing more energy. The Republican program for solving economic problems is based on growth and productivity. Large amounts of oil, coal, and natural gas lie beneath our land and off our shores, untouched because the present Administration seems to believe the American people would rather see more regulation, more taxes, and more controls, than more energy." This was irresponsible nonsense, and yet the public embraced this message. Under Reagan the country denied that there ever had been an energy crisis or that it could ever come again. As he declared during a speech in Cleveland, "The truth is America has an abundance of energy. But the policies of this administration consistently discouraged its discovery and production." He promised to "get America producing again" and concluded, "Every available resource we have must be used to free us from OPEC's domination." 28 years later, the Reagan promises of energy abundance ring rather hollow. But don't be too surprised if McCain's rhetoric begins to shift toward the winning Reagan formula. [In fact, McCain and Bush both began to do this two days after this Blog was published. See my posting for 18 June.]