Greening the White House
Moreover, American voters are united like never before behind the premise that a candidate's "green credentials" are critical to their ultimate ballot box decisions. Indeed, pollster John Zogby found an increase among voters from 11 percent in 2005 to more than 30 percent today who plan to evaluate the candidates on their energy and environmental policies. While admittedly less than a majority, in a close race, the margins matter, and McCain and Obama are both wise to embrace these issues as platform staples. In many ways, they indeed go hand in hand, particularly as American consumers sweat through record gas prices that may forever alter our consumption habits.
One of my lasting memories of covering the New Hampshire primary this past January was the prominence of global warming activists throughout the state's major cities. They even occupied a storefront in downtown Manchester, and built snowmen along the main thoroughfare (Elm Street), who despite record snow falls, were melting by the minute due to unseasonably balmy temperatures. One fleeting moment in front of the statehouse in Concord captured their influence as Sen. McCain delivered his closing remarks before voters who would ultimately catapult him to victory and the GOP nomination. Global warming activists mounted the snow banks that surrounded McCain's rostrum, and at the outset of the speech, he acknowledged the threat of climate change and vowed a dramatic departure from the past four years.
Not only does this example contextualize the passion of interested parties who surround this issue, but it also points to the sea change (no pun intended) promised by the Nov. 4 election, regardless of who is the victor. With this, I turn to my usual comparison and contrast of the energy policies of the presumptive Democratic and Republican nominees, beginning with Obama.
Obama frames the problem in two contexts. One, he is concerned with the fact that Americans consume 20 million barrels of oil daily at a costs of $1.4 billion, equaling $500 billion in 2006 alone, a full $41 million per hour on foreign oil. Two, he warns us of the dangers of global climate change, including melting polar ice caps, early blooming trees, species migration, even distinction.
What follows is a comprehensive, if scattered, recipe intended to resolve these twin, related dangers. Obama tackles global warming in a fashion very similar to McCain. Indeed, the senior Arizona senator was an early pioneer of the cap-and-trade system embraced by Obama, co-sponsoring bipartisan legislation that was admittedly less ambitious as early as 2003. Obama hopes to attain an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases as they existed in 1990 by 2050. To accomplish this, he would institute a system of pollution credits, where individual businesses would essentially purchase the right to pollute via auction. He would use these revenues to foster clean energy development, assist with transitional costs, and subsidize the training of displaced workers.
McCain, by comparison, does not require an auction for pollution credits, but instead allots them equitably. Companies who do not use their entire allotment of pollution credits may sell them for a profit to those who are less efficient in this respect, essentially creating a market for pollution with the goal of incentivizing environmentally friendly business practices. McCain's targeted reductions in greenhouse gases are also less stringent, though he does pledge to reduce them by 2/3 of 1990 levels by 2050.
McCain's program applies to those industries responsible for 90 percent of all air pollution, including utilities, commercial and industrial business, and transportation fuels. Small businesses would be exempt. Those businesses who exceed prescribed limits would be forced to contribute to carbon offset programs, such as agricultural attempts at carbon sequestration.
An additional measure included in Obama's plan to stymie climate change is his pledge to halt deforestation and promote carbon sequestration through incentives to plant trees, restore grasslands and take other measures to reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere.
From here, we shift from grandiose plans to piecemeal solutions as both candidates seek to reduce our dependence on foreign oil while at the same time tackling climate change from the angle of personal energy usage. Obama pledges a $150 billion investment in clean energy over the next decade, along with a 100 percent increase in funding for energy research and development. He embraces green technologies from the standpoint of workforce training and business practices. Obama would require that 25 percent of our electricity be generated by renewable sources come 2025, while investing in clean coal technology, cellulosic ethanol, and biofuel (see corn ethanol) refineries. He mandates that fuel itself emit 10 percent less carbon when burned by 2020, along with upping the standards for the amount of renewable fuels for sale n the overall market.
McCain echoes Obama's support for clean coal technology and cellulosic ethanol, but has been a long-time critic of corn ethanol subsidies, especially at a time when agricultural prices are at an all-time high and the use of corn from ethanol has adverse implications for food consumed at the kitchen table. The senior Arizona senator returns to his soap box about the adverse impact that protectionist tariffs, price supports, and mandates have on the energy market, calling for an end to these distortions. He seeks to standardize this confusing patchwork of incentives and diversions, while, like Obama, investing in research and development and renewable sources of energy.
A major point of departure between McCain and Obama exists on the supply side of the energy equation. McCain pushed for a summer federal gas tax holiday that Obama called a "gimic" that his chief Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, also embraced. The debate has since shifted to the imposition of a windfall profits tax which both Democratic presidential candidates embraced and McCain opposes. McCain is more concerned with speculation in futures markets driving up the price of oil, seeking greater regulation of commodity trading. Most recently, despite his previous opposition to the practice, McCain is pushing for offshore oil exploration on the Continental Shelf (Obama is against), but unlike most of his party (including President Bush), he maintains his strong stance against drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (Obama in agreement).
Shifting away from oil for a moment, a stark difference between the two candidates on energy issues is their position on nuclear energy. McCain seeks the construction of 45 new nuclear plants by 2030 with a goal of eventually opening 100 new plants. Over the past 30 years, not a single new plant opened in the US while India, China and Russia pledge to open 100 of their own. Obama makes no mention of nuclear energy in his plan, thus the assumption that he does not embrace it as a solution to our energy crisis.
An area of strong agreement between the two candidates is their approach to automobile construction. Both have supported CAFE standards on the Senate floor, and McCain pledges to enforce the existing protocols, while Obama would double these fuel efficiency standards over the next 18 years. Although he is less stringent in this capacity, McCain does offer a $5,000 tax credit for the purchase of zero carbon cars, hoping to incentivize their production by automakers. Additionally, he promises a $300 million prize to the creator of a plug-in hybrid car that utilizes battery power at 30 percent of current costs. Finally, he intends to encourage American automakers to speed up their conversion to flex fuel cars. The existing goal is 50 percent of all production by 2012, but McCain hopes to accelerate this further.
Both promise to make our nation's electricity grid more energy efficient, and also to improve building efficiency. McCain zeros in on the largest landlord in the country, the federal government, while Obama is more universal in his approach. The junior Illinois senator would push for all buildings to be carbon neutral by 2030, with a goal of improving existing building efficiency by 25 percent and new building efficiency by 50 percent over the next decade.
Finally, in a subtle jab at the Bush Administration, Obama pledges a restoration of American leadership on energy issues. He hopes to create an international forum on energy issues composed of the world's leading consumers, including members of the G-8, along with China, India, South Africa and Brazil. Additionally, he pledges with work with the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change. This body will be busy crafting international energy use policies for the next half century as the Kyoto Protocol is up for renegotiation next year. McCain, although silent on these issues, has spoken about reengaging with international institutions after eight years of unilateralism, so he too may embrace global exchanges and cooperation on energy use and climate change.
In the end, both candidates place forward ambitious plans to address the nation's dependence on foreign oil and the climate change associated with our energy consumption. Both seemingly start from a common point of departure and offer innovative solutions to the established problems. Their respective plans are scattered in parts, but represent a commitment to these interrelated issues. Disagreements center on the pace and vehicles of change. Obama is more ambitious with his quantitative goals and more willing to use the power of the federal government to attain them. McCain embraces market mechanisms instead, while also offering pragmatic solutions that are rooted in old energy solutions (oil exploration, nuclear energy) in order to provide temporary relief to consumers suffering from record-high fuel costs.
On January 20, 2009, the White House will have an occupant committed to going green like never before. Whether it is President McCain or Obama, the Oval Office occupant will make environmentally friendly energy policy a priority, moving beyond the Rose Garden to tackle perhaps the paramount challenge of our lifetime.