Alternative Energy, Energy Independence and Global Warming Reduction

How Politicians Keep Us Energy Dependent to Get Votes

Remember those 68 million acres that oil comanies are to drill before asking for offshore licenses? Turns out that politicians have blocked some of the most promising areas as revealed in this story.

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Energy Issues: Where Will the Election Take Us?

Now that the two parties have finished their conventions and begun to move into a full-fledged campaign mode, it’s time to look ahead to what we can expect in terms of post-election energy policies and programs. Earlier PlanetWatch pieces have described the gridlock of the past two years, and it’s probably the case that the brief remaining session of the 110th Congress will likely be more of the same. But perhaps there will be an opening in 2009 for some real progress.
     Looking at the stated positions of the candidates as they have evolved through the long primary campaign, at their records on the issues in prior positions, and at the platforms of the two parties, there is a significant convergence in terms of where the nation needs to go, even though there are major differences as to how we should get there. The agreement on need for action reflects a broadening public consensus about the depth of our problems, while the disagreement on the means is more closely connected to the traditional philosophy of government in each of the parties.
     Some observers, in fact, see the joined issues of climate and energy as a real test of how government will progress in the next four years. If John McCain wins the White House, he will in all likelihood face a Democratic Congress, perhaps one with even greater majorities in both houses. As he looks for ways to begin working on across the aisle, these issues offer the opportunity for bi-partisan dialogue. A President Obama, on the other hand, will need to make peace within his own party and will likely need some Republican support to make up for losses on the Democratic extreme.
     In either case, the opportunity for compromise is heightened both by the gravity of the issues and their multiple dimensions. Tradeoffs are the means of compromise in our system, and that is what we will need to see, if there is to be progress. Senator Obama’s recent statement that responsible drilling can be part of a comprehensive package is just that sort of move. Senator McCain’s insistence that the Republican platform accept the reality of the climate change challenge is one as well. The nature of the party differences falls into five major categories, as described below:

• Short Term Response to Gasoline Prices
• Climate Change
• Energy Supply Policies
• Conservation and Demand Reduction Policies
• New Fuels and Technologies
• Transportation and the Automobile

Based on the published statements of the candidates and the parties, the discussion below seeks to identify both the differences and the areas of agreement on each of these topics, with some thoughts as to why these positions and what they may imply for the future. The candidates’ initials are used, as well as RP and DP for the Republican and Democratic parties.

Short Term Response to Gasoline Prices
  Republicans   Democrats
Proposed a "gas tax holiday" (JMcC) Opposed the McCain proposal (BO)
Opposes any windfall profits tax (JMcC)
Supports a windfall profits tax on oil companies with energy rebate of $1000 per family (BO)
Reforms to assure effective gov- ernance of oil futures markets. (RP) Legislative action to crack down on oil speculation (BO)
  Release limited amounts from Strategic Petroleum Reserve, swap light for heavy crude (BO)

In the long run, none of these proposals may be terribly significant. In the heat of a campaign with gas at $4.00, candidates have to say something, but who knows what the situation will be in the early months of 2009 when the new President has to act. Past oil price spikes have tended to abate, and that may happen this time. Senator McCain may discover the fact that his gas tax holiday would have hastened the demise of what is already a nearly bankrupt Highway Trust Fund. Some may argue that now would be a propitious time to put a floor under gasoline prices with a tax that could trigger in as prices fall from their record highs, but it is unlikely that such a move would occur in an election year.

Long Term Response to Climate Change
  Republicans   Democrats
"Climate change is a global problem" (JMcC)
We ignore climate change at our own peril…our use of fossil fuels is pushing us to a point of no return" (BO)
Taking steps to deal with climate change as it affects Alaska but would not "attribute it to being man-made" (SP) Sees the potential of climate change-induced instability as a national security issue (JB)
Responsible efforts on climate change but without sacrifices (RP)
Achieve 60% greenhouse gas reduction by 2050 through market-based cap- and-trade (JMcC) Achieve 80% greenhouse gas reduction by 2050 through cap-and-trade (BO)
Use of free credits with later auctions (JMcC)
All Credits to be Auctioned, some proceeds for tech development, most for rebates and transition relief (BO)
Provide national leadership in the UN process and with incentives for China and India to participate (JMcC)
Will engage internationally through a Global Energy Forum (G-8, China, India, et al.) as well as through the UN Framework. (BO)
Encourage development of local adaptation and mitigation plans (JMcC)  

In contrast to the short term responses on gas prices, the climate change positions reflect much more in the way of consensus. Both parties, unlike the situation of recent years, recognize the need for action, agree on a market-based cap-and-trade program as a way to deal with the issue domestically, and support the premise that there needs to be international engagement to bring China and India into the fold. Where there are differences, they are with the nature of the mechanism and the speed with which results can be achieved. Looking to 2050, for example, the McCain position calls for a 60% reduction in greenhouse gases while the Obama goal is 80%. And in terms of how the cap-and-trade program would work, Republican principles dictate more of a market approach with free distribution of credits while Democrats emphasize setting of carbon prices through auction with use of some proceeds for technology development and some for cushioning impacts. There’s also an interesting comparison between the Sarah Palin position which is still skeptical as to cause of climate change and Joe Biden’s position that it could drive serious national security problems in the coming decades.

Energy Supply Issues
  Republicans   Democrats
Produce 45 nuclear plants by 2030, and an additional 55 later. Would use Yucca Mountain but also support an international waste repository (JMcC)
May be potential for nuclear with careful safeguards for public and for proliferation. Yucca Mountain is not a solution for waste storage (BO)
Supports an "all of the above" approach to energy security (JMcC)
Called energy security his "first priority" (JB) “End the tyranny of oil in our time" (DP) National security is threatened by energy insecurity (DP)
McCain-Lieberman climate bill had $200 M for nuclear plant R & D (JMcC) Co-sponsor of McCain-Lieberman climate bill (BO)
Expand domestic production through increased oil and gas drilling--onshore and offshore, not ANWR (JMcC)
Use or lose approach to existing leases. Encourage oil shale and gas recovery; open the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve (not the ANWR) Enhanced oil recovery from existing fields (BO)
  Support some offshore drilling as part of a comprehensive package (BO)
Supports ANWR Drilling (SP)
Has opposed offshore drilling (JB) "Can't drill our way to energy independence" (DP)
Oppose any permanent block to ANWR drilling (RP)  
Provide new refinery capacity (RP)  
Get natural gas to consumers safely and quickly (RP) Open up competition in the development of the Alaska Natural Gas Pipeline (SP) Prioritize completion of the Alaska Natural Gas Pipeline (BO)
Support development of new refineries (RP)  
Commit $2 billion per year for clean coal technology (JMcC) $2 Billion per year for clean coal technology (BO)
  Finds other technologies preferable to clean coal (JB)
Oppose Democrats plans to block construction of new coal-burning power plants (RP) Accelerate "clean coal" facilities. Dept. of Energy to sign up for five commercial scale plants with carbon capture (BO)
Opposed oil company subsidies and voted against 2005 Energy Bill (JMcC)  

When the discussion turns to sources of new energy, the debate becomes more interesting, with some real distinctions, but also with some hints of future compromise. Responding to some overwhelming polling results, the Republicans have strongly supported new exploration and development of oil and natural gas—“drill here, drill now.” Perhaps the only open issue is whether Senator McCain will stick with his past position that the coastal plain of the Alaska Natural Refuge Area (ANWR) should be off limits. His running mate, Governor Palin, can attribute much of her success in managing Alaska’s finances to the flow of oil revenues, but also argues that she has been “tough on big oil companies”. As noted above, Senator Obama has held out the idea that additional drilling could be part of a comprehensive package.
     On the subject of coal, the two candidates seem to be in agreement on support of technology investment, and Senator Obama, who comes from a coal producing state, has jumped on the idea that the Department of Energy effort to encourage production with carbon sequestration should be supported. Time will tell whether a President Obama can bring along enough Democrats to support coal investment, but it may have bi-partisan potential.
     The attitude towards nuclear is another place where the parties are divided. Senator McCain is all-out in favor of new plants—45 by 2030, with development of Yucca Mountain as the waste repository. The Obama position seems to be open to nuclear, but with significant hurdles to be overcome in terms of safety and waste management.

Conservation and Demand Reduction
  Republicans   Democrats
Opposed to mandatory renewable standards. Encourage the markets through even-handed tax credits (JMcC) Supports a mandatory 25% renewable energy standard by 2025 (BO)(DP)
Pro-conservation without specifics (RP)  
"Achieve strategic independence by 2025" (JMcC)
Reduce Oil consumption 35% by 2030, eliminating all OPEC imports (BO) (DP)
Provide leadership in federal government actions (JMcC)
Reduce federal energy use and increase use of ZCEVs — zero carbon emission vehicles (BO) "Use the power of federal and military purchasing" (DP)
Increase energy efficiency through conservation options and individual economic choices (RP)
Major emphasis on energy efficiency, reduce electricity demand by 15% by 2020. National goals for building efficiency, appliance standards and federal consumption. (BO) "Make America 50% more energy efficient by 2030" (DP)
  Weatherize 1 million homes per year (BO)
  Encourage livable and sustainable communities through infrastructure investment (BO)

As in the case of supply, the distinctions here are in terms of how to achieve the goals, not whether the goals need to be achieved. The idea of energy efficiency in our buildings, our appliances and our energy production is accepted. Democrats, including Senator Obama, would accomplish this by means such as a mandated national standard for use of renewables in electricity production and through required standards for building and appliance efficiency. Both candidates offer leadership in making the federal government a leader in its conservation practices as a customer and operator of vehicles and facilities. Democrats also link the energy issue to their views on infrastructure and urban development with a call for “smart growth” policies as population grows and new construction accommodates new people and jobs.

New Fuels and Technologies
  Republicans   Democrats
General support for new technology (JMcC)
Specific program with $150B over 10 years for clean energy and "green jobs," components to include plug-in hybrids, renewables, clean coal, biofuel and grid improvement (BO)
Supports non-food ethanol, not through subsidies but through even-handed tax credits (JMcC). Eliminate tariff and wasteful subsidies to level the biofuel playing field (JMcC) R & D support, tax incentives and mandates to assure at least 60 billion gallons a year of advanced biofuel by 2030 (BO)
  Mandate a new low-carbon fuel standard to reduce carbon by 10% in 10 years (BO)
Permanent 10% Energy R&D Tax Credit (JMcC)  
$300M prize for development of battery technology (JMcC)  
Modernize the electric grid (RP)
Provide funding toward development of a new digital grid (BO). Install a smarter grid (DP)
R & D for carbon sequestration (RP)  
Climate prizes to encourage new technologies (RP)  

The agreement on need for new sources of fuel and technological breakthroughs is evident in both party positions, but again, the means reflect strong views about how these outcomes can best be achieved. The Obama Green Energy Proposal is a key element in his campaign positions, calling for a large-scale program of government investment, on the order of $150 billion over a decade, to achieve the breakthroughs needed in such areas as plug-in hybrid vehicles, effective means to use renewable sources, a “smart grid,” clean coal and sequestration technology and a new generation of biofuel. And there is a direct connection in the Democratic message to the promise that such investment will produce five million “green collar” jobs.
     On the McCain side, the need for these outcomes is recognized, but the steps to get there are far less specific, except for the idea of a $300 million prize program to bring out innovation in battery technology. For the most part, the Republican premise is that market forces will produce what is needed, and where necessary government support would come through tax credits or similar means, but provided on an even-handed basis.

Automotive Technology
  Republicans   Democrats
Opposes mandated CAFÉ increases , will strongly enforce existing law (JMcC)
Increase by 4% a year to double fuel economy standards within 18 years (BO). Supports 40 mpg in 10 years (JB)
A "Clean Car Challenge" through $5000 tax credits for purchasers of zero carbon emission vehicles (JMcC)
Put 1 million plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015. $7000 tax credit for purchasers. Commit 50% of all US government cars (BO)
Supports flex-fuel vehicles and calls on industry to produce them (JMcC) (RP) Mandate all new vehicles be flex-fuel (BO)
Supports telecommuting (JMcC)  
Support technological advances to vehicles such as a 50% weight reduction through use of composites (RP) $4 billion in retooling tax credits for domestic auto industry to build fuel efficient cars (BO)

Recognizing the central connection between our automotive fleet with its dependence on gasoline and the issue of energy independence, both parties have specific thoughts about where cars are going, and it is again not hard to distinguish which party is in which place. Senators Obama and Biden have strongly supported increased CAFÉ standards for the auto fleet and would continue pressure on the industry for significant improvement. Senator McCain, on the other hand, believes that the current standards are satisfactory, but require greater enforcement to assure industry compliance. Related to CAFÉ standards, there is a Democratic proposal for $4 billion in tax credit support for the domestic industry to retool for fuel efficient cars. On the Republican side, there is a “throwaway” line in the platform that greater use of composite materials could make cars weigh half as much and therefore be twice as fuel efficient, but with no specifics as to how this should happen.
     There is a similar distinction between parties on the issue of “flex-fuel” vehicles, the technology that would enable automobiles to use any mix of gasoline and biofuel. The Democratic position calls for a national mandate, while the Republican candidate and platform merely exhorts the industry to produce the technology.
     Each candidate supports steps to increase the share of plug-in hybrids or similar low-carbon vehicles in the fleet. Senator McCain would offer a $5000 tax credit to purchasers under his “Clean Car Challenge,” while the Obama platform sets a specific target of 1 million plug-ins on the road by 2015, supported by a $7000 tax credit and a commitment that half of all government purchases would be plug-ins. Summary      With sixty days to the election, anything can happen, and it’s by no means certain that the energy issues will receive the attention that they deserve. But voters concerned about the issue have much to consider and much to feel good about. Both sides are recognizing the need for action. Choosing which candidate to support will depend on a number of factors, most of them in areas outside the energy field. But in this case, the choice will be not whether the candidate believes something should be done, but rather on whether you believe that the programs and the strategies they propose to use will be effective. Will it be necessary to gear up substantial government involvement? Can the market produce the desired results? Will international discussions bear fruit, and in general will we be better off in four years than we are today?
     As noted above, there are a variety of issues on the table. Each is important; each has its strong supporters and its strong detractors. A skillful leader over the next four years has the opportunity to craft a comprehensive energy approach, building consensus among the stakeholders that may finally deliver on the national requirement for energy security with appropriate concern for global sustainability. The recent emergence of a centrist coalition in the Congress, including 5 Senators from each party and a total of 120 House members (largely Republican but including some energy state Democrats) points to the possibility of building compromise from the middle outwards. Let’s hope for such an outcome as we make our Presidential choice.                 

Mort Downey