Source: “My Bottom Line is Green: McCain v. Obama on Renewable Energy”, treehugger.com, Business & Politics, Matthew McDermott, 17th Sept 2008
In politics everyone has their bottom line issue: The issue for them which is the ultimate deciding factor when comparing candidates running for office. For me, and I suspect many TreeHugger readers, that issue is the environment.
In that spirit, over the next couple of weeks I’m going to be presenting a series of posts comparing the proposed policies of Barack Obama and John McCain, mostly in their own words and with my take on them at the end. Many people have already made up their minds, but for those who haven’t I hope this comparison proves useful. Renewable Energy is up first:
Before we get into the heart of this everyone needs to keep in mind that both candidates undoubtedly place energy policy high on their list of priorities, which is a good thing. How each prioritizes the co-joined issues of energy independence and greening our energy mix, not to mention the best way to go about doing each, vary considerably.
John McCain on Renewable Energy
The first thing about the McCain renewable energy policy in the official campaign literature is that any reference to it occurs after mentioning expanding domestic oil and natural gas production, after expanding nuclear power, and after mention of clean coal—all of which will be tackled in future posts—and when he does get around to talking about renewable energy it is in fairly general terms:
“Even-handed” System of Tax Credits to Promote Renewables
According to the Department of Energy, wind could provide as much as one-fifth of electricity by 2030. The U.S. solar energy industry continued its double-digit annual growth rate in 2006. To develop these and other sources of renewable energy will require that we rationalize the current patchwork of temporary tax credits that provide commercial feasibility. John McCain believes in an even-handed system of tax credits that will remain in place until the market transforms sufficiently to the point where renewable energy no longer merits the taxpayers’ dollars. (McCain-Palin 2008)
Biofuels Show Promise
On biofuels, McCain’s official position is similarly succinct:
…Alcohol-based fuels hold great promise as an alternative to gasoline and as a means of expanding consumer choices. Some choices such as ethanol are on the market right now. The second generation of alcohol-based fuels like cellulosic ethanol, which won’t compete with food crops, are showing great potential.(McCain-Palin 2008)
No Federal Renewable Portfolio Standard
In regards to any mandatory federal Renewable Portfolio Standard, McCain has indicated that he would prefer the market to decide the best solution and states to set standards as they deem appropriate:
As a strong supporter of a greenhouse gas cap and trade system, I believe that such an approach is a better way to diversify and cleanup up the nation’s energy mix by harnessing the power of market forces. I believe that government’s role is to set appropriate standards to protect the environment and allow the market to determine the best means of achieving them. To the extent that state and local policymakers identify useful ways to augment this architecture, I believe that governors, mayors, county supervisors, public utility commission and other authorities can better tailor such policies to local conditions and resources. (’08 On The Record)
When asked recently by Science Debate 2008 how government should support renewable energy he said:
Government must be an ally but not an arbiter. [...] I’ve voted against the current patchwork of tax credits for renewable power because they were temporary, and often the result of who had the best lobbyist instead of who had the best ideas. But the objective itself was right and urgent. [...] We will reform the effort so that it is fair, rational and permanent, letting the market decide which ideas can move us toward clean and renewable energy.
In a broader perspective , The League of Conservation Voters has given John McCain’s lifetime environmental voting record a score of 24 out of 100, adding that he has repeated “rejected even the weakest renewable energy programs.”
Sarah Palin’s Position on Renewable Energy
There’s no doubt that Sarah Palin speaks out far more about expanding production of fossil fuels than on the benefits of renewable energy and her now oft-cited quote,“alternative energy solutions are far from imminent and would require more than 10 years to develop” (The Post & Courier), does little to promote any other viewpoint.
That said, last year she did add her name to a letter to the Senate Committee on Agriculture which isn’t so hostile towards, and frankly ignorant about, renewable energy:
If the nation is to pursue energy independence, we must look beyond traditional biofuels production. [...] Local production of renewable biomass energy benefits the national economy, promotes national and regional energy security and stimulates the rural economy through the creation of high quality jobs. Encouraging such production will require increased federal investment in programs that support cellulosic biofuels research, increased biodiesel production and use, increases in wind and solar energy and energy from animal wastes, improvements in energy efficiency, bio-based product development, effective carbon storage, and other renewable technologies. (On The Issues 2008)
Barack Obama on Renewable Energy
Low Carbon Fuel Standard
In addition to the 25% by 2025 Renewable Portfolio Standard mentioned above, Obama would:
Establish a National Low Carbon Fuel Standard to speed the introduction of low-carbon non-petroleum fuels. The standard requires fuel suppliers in 2010 to begin to reduce the carbon of their fuels by 5% within 5 years and 10% within 10 years. The Obama plan will incentivize increased private sector investment in advanced low-carbon fuels and has a sustainability provision to ensure that increased biofuel production does not come at the expense of environmental conservation. (Barack Obama and Joe Biden)
Food Versus Fuel
On May 4th of this year on Meet the Press Obama weighed in on the food versus fuel debate. He was asked whether he would consider changing the current ethanol subsidy program:
We’ve got rising food prices here in the US. In other countries we’re seeing riots because of the lack of food supplies. So this is something that we’re going to have to deal with. [...] My top priority is making sure that people are able to get enough to eat. And if it turns out that we’ve got to make changes in our ethanol policy to help people get something to eat, then that’s got to be the step we take. But I also believe that ethanol has been a important transitional tool for us to start dealing with our long-term energy crisis ultimately. Over time we’re going to shift to cellulosic ethanol, where we’re not using food stocks but we’re using wood chips & prairie grass.
The League of Conservation Voters has given Obama’s lifetime environmental voting record a score of 96 out of 100.
How Does Joe Biden Play Into This?
According to the LCV, Joe Biden has a lifetime environmental voting record score of 84, which compares to a Senate average of 52. When asked about a federal Renewable Portfolio Standard by LCV he said,
I support setting a national renewable fuel standard of 20% to increase the use of renewable fuels. We should have a national policy that encourages the development of clean, renewable energy and we should invest in developing renewable energy technology. The US should be a world leader not only in using renewable energy but also in developing and exporting renewable technology to the rest of the world.
Barack Obama’s position on renewable energy is well publicized in his campaign documents. He has promised to invest $150 billion over 10 years in renewable energy technologies; he has said that by 2030 he will require at least 60 billion gallons of advanced biofuels be incorporated into the national fuel mix; by 2025 Obama would require that 25% of the US electricity supply be generated from “clean, sustainable energy sources, like solar, wind and geothermal; and he would extend the federal production tax credit for five years to assist in making this happen.
To my knowledge, he’s not offered any definitive plan as to how US developed technology will be exported to the rest of the world—is he referring to technology transfer to developing countries or just the normal trade that already goes on?—but either way it’s good to see this mentioned.
McCain & Obama Head to Head
Obama supports strong national policies promoting renewable energy, including a strong Renewable Portfolio Standard; McCain would leave many such decisions to the states and has expressed no support for a national RPS. Obama has a clear position on how long renewable energy tax credits would be extended; McCain only states that an “even-handed system” is needed until renewable energy no longer needs support. Both candidates support biofuels, and seem to have gotten the message that first generation biofuels aren’t quite the thing we thought they were, but here too Obama’s position is more detailed and clear. In terms of running-mates, Joe Biden is far more articulate on the issue of renewable energy than Sarah Palin and is clearly a supporter; whereas Palin is ambivalent at best and at worst simply doesn’t get it.McCain Talks Renewable Energy But Clearly Prioritizes Other Energy Sources
Overall though, I think the starkest contrast between the campaigns is that the McCain platform clearly prioritizes increasing domestic fossil fuel production and expansion of nuclear power over renewable energy. It is somewhat supportive of renewables in its rhetoric—though it seems as though he thinks the current renewable energy tax credits are some sort of command economy lite, which they simply aren’t—but this is secondary to the issue of increasing energy independence.
Obama Places Renewables on More Even Footing
The Obama campaign clearly envisions renewable energy occupying a greater portion of the United States’ energy supply in a shorter time period than does the McCain campaign. While it too mentions nuclear and the oxymoronic clean coal these are prioritized far differently than in the McCain campaign. Obama has clearly expressed that the federal government should take the lead in promoting renewable energy, again a stark difference. While it may not be perfect—$150 billion over ten years is an genuine increase in government investment in renewables, but it is a small fraction of overall investment that is needed—the Obama position on renewable energy is simply stronger.
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