The Big Difference in Obama’s and McCain’s Plans for Our Energy Future

Alternet LogoA few weeks ago I was at Iowa State University addressing 500 students and faculty at its engineering school. I was sharing a platform with former CIA Director Jim Woolsey. At one point, a student asked our views on the presidential candidates’ energy programs.

Iresponded that the essential difference between Obama and McCain is not in their goals as much as it is in the tools they would use to reach those goals. Obama believes in the active use of government authority; John McCain does not. McCain’s self-declared heroes, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, galvanized and led a movement whose principal thesis is that government is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Woolsey,a principal McCain energy adviser, disagreed. McCain’s hero is Teddy Roosevelt, Woolsey observed. That is true. “My hero is a guy named Teddy Roosevelt,” McCain has declared. But aside from his high regard for TR’s physical bravery and his outspokenness, I can’t imagine which Rooseveltian actions he would embrace. John McCain circa 2008 is the antithesis of Teddy Roosevelt circa 1908.

TR had an almost visceral hatred of big business and a vigorous desire to increase government authority to curb private abuses. His attorney general brought 44 suits against big businesses. One led to the breakup of Standard Oil, a favorite target of Roosevelt’s anger, into 30 smaller companies. TR proposed a national incorporation law to curb corporate power, since state licensing had allowed companies to shop around for the least restrictive state in which to incorporate.

TR wanted to limit the use of court injunctions against labor unions. He wanted to introduce a federal income tax and an inheritance tax. He was the first U.S. president to come out in favor of national health insurance.

John McCain, on the other hand, wants to reduce income taxes and virtually abolish the inheritance tax. He has favored deregulation in virtually all sectors, including energy. He actively supported the 18-month effort by Republicans to prevent the extension of renewable energy incentives unless the Democrats eliminated a proposed windfall profit tax on major oil and gas companies that would pay for these incentives.

Inone instance, the Senate voted 59-40 to close off debate, one vote short of the required 60. McCain was the only senator who did not vote, even though he reportedly was in Washington at the time. Teddy Roosevelt would have both condemned his political convictions and scorned his lack of courage in not voting at all.

The Wall Street Journal compared Obama and McCain’s energy programs and concluded that JohnMcCain is no Teddy Roosevelt. “Although the candidates have similar goals, they would pursue drastically different paths to achieve them.” McCain’s energy plan “argues for a more hands-off approach” from government.

In keeping with his hands-off policy, the centerpiece of McCain’s governmental program for energy independence, unveiled during the summer, is a $300 million prize for a new car battery.

Whenasked by the environmental Web site Grist about his vote against incentives for renewable energy, McCain responded, “I’m not one who believes that we need to subsidize things. The wind industry is doing fine, the solar industry is doing fine.” Almost everyone agrees that if the wind and solar incentives were allowed to expire at the end of this year, a prospect avoided only when the Senate added the incentives to a revised bailout bill, renewable energy expansion would have ground to a halt.

Obama has supported a 25 percent national renewable electricity mandate. McCain has voted against it. He also voted against a 10 percent mandate.

Obama believes renewables can and should play an important and perhaps primary role in our energy future. McCain does not. “If you maximized renewable energy in every possible way, the contribution that that would make, given the present state of technology, is very small,” McCain told one audience. “The truly clean technologies don’t work.”

Both Obama and McCain support the use of nuclear energy and clean coal. But McCain sees these as the key twin foundations of our future energy supply. He wants to have 45 new nuclear reactors in place by 2030, with two new reactors every year from now until then. “Nuclear power has got to be a very big part of any effective action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

Obamais much more cautious in his embrace of nuclear power. Moreover, he opposes dumping the nation’s radioactive waste in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. McCain supports it. It is very unlikely that we will see a resurgence of nuclear reactors if their host communities must also host permanent radioactive waste depositories.

Obama views efficiency as a key tool in reducing greenhouse gases and moving toward energy independence. McCain has voted against raising the fuel efficiency standard for cars and against higher efficiency standards for air conditioners.

McCain has gotten enormous mileage out of his support for climate change legislation. Just last Sunday a New York Times headline read, “On Global Warming, McCain and Obama Agree.” But once again, McCain’s approach is a far less activist one than Obama’s. Obama, for example, wants to auction off 100 percent of the emission permits to businesses. McCain wants to give most of them away to polluters.

When asked about state and regional efforts to cap greenhouse gas emissions in a debate a few weeks ago, McCain energy adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin called state efforts “costly and uncoordinated” plans that will interfere with a nationwide scheme. He wants the federal government, in essence, to preempt state initiatives. Obama’s energy adviser, Dan Esty, disagreed. He praised the leadership of states on the issue and said, “Those are very important starting points” for a national program.

When it comes to energy and climate change, McCain and Obama use similar language. They both want energy independence. They both want dramatic greenhouse gas reductions. They both support renewable energy. Both talk about the urgent nature of the energy problems facing us. But in Washington, words are cheap. The proof of the pudding is in the actions they propose to meet their goals. And when it comes to actions, a vast difference exists between the two camps. Teddy Roosevelt would have had no trouble identifying the one that most reflected his philosophy.

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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.