Not a quarter’s worth of difference

Here’s a political quiz. Match the quotation with the candidate (answers are at the end of this article):

1. “I think nuclear power has to be part of our energy solution.”

2. “I don’t think we can take nuclear power off the table.”

3. “I believe we have to go back to nuclear power.”

a. John McCain

b. Hillary Clinton

c. Barack Obama

Decades ago, a frequent complaint about politicians was that there wasn’t “a dime’s worth of difference” between them. Today, accounting for inflation, it’s safe to say that when it comes to energy and environmental policy, there isn’t a quarter’s worth of difference among the leading candidates for president.

Inch deep

Examination of the candidates’ positions reveals that none appears to have a deep understanding of technical energy dynamics and economics. Prone to pieties and pandering, the candidates don’t appear to take the subject seriously; instead, they parrot conventional wisdom. It isn’t clear what they actually understand, or if they believe what they are talking about. They don’t seem to have examined the technical issues independently of the politics; they simply regurgitate the views of their staffs, which are based on political calculations.

Nor do the backgrounds of the candidates’ advisors on energy issues inspire much confidence in the rigor of the candidates’ views. For the record, all three candidates rely on economists and lawyers (mostly lawyers) for their views on energy and the environment. None appears to have any engineering or scientific advice in tow. They would be more believable if their views were fact-based.

The three major candidates for president in the two major political parties embrace meaningless and misleading notions such as “energy independence” and espouse a technological optimism (on renewables, for example) that has little grounding in reality.

Playing their carbon cards

Republican McCain, and Democrats Obama and Clinton, all support cap-and-trade approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Each accepts that manmade global warming is real, that it is something the U.S. government must deal with urgently, and that pollution trading for CO2 will work as well as the trading of SO2 emissions in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments has.

In one area of energy policy, there has been a difference. When John McCain in May, with Hillary Clinton hard on his heels, offered up a moratorium on federal gasoline taxes during the summer to reduce gas prices, Barack Obama said no. It was an act of political courage. It paid off in voter support.

The gas tax moratorium, Obama argued, wouldn’t reduce pump prices; it would put more money in the pockets of oil companies. When virtually every energy economist in the U.S. agreed with Obama, Clinton wouldn’t relent. In the last few days leading up to the early May primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, she kept pushing her take on how the federal government could help consumers by eschewing the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax for three months. It worked against her.

Most analysts saw the tax moratorium as pandering, and media coverage reflected that view. Obama and the economists said that, beyond redirecting dollars to oil companies, the McCain-Clinton tax moratorium would impoverish federal highway maintenance and improvement funds. Voters seemed to agree. The issue never got any traction. In retrospect, that may have been the end of the Clinton candidacy.

By the time this issue goes to press, we will likely have one less Democratic contender. However, the one left standing may embrace some of the second-place candidate’s views in an effort to consolidate power.

Differences without a distinction

What are the candidates’ energy and environmental views? The following summaries derive from their web sites and news stories from credible media outlets. The order reflects the firmness of each candidate’s hold on a nomination. That is, John McCain certainly will be the Republican nominee; Barack Obama almost certainly will be the Democratic nominee; Hillary Clinton has a very long shot (at this writing in early June) to upset Obama.

John McCain. John McCain, the Arizona senator who will be the GOP presidential nominee, has long been an advocate, along with Connecticut Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman (Al Gore’s Democratic running mate in 2000), of a far more aggressive approach to CO2 reductions than the Republican mainstream. McCain’s website (www.johnmccain.com) says the senator has a “common sense approach to limit carbon emissions by harnessing market forces that will bring advanced technologies, such as nuclear power, to the fore.” He’s talking cap-and-trade.

McCain has embraced the elderly and infirm metaphor of “energy independence,” as have both of his Democratic rivals. “As president,” says McCain, “I’ll propose a national energy strategy that will amount to a declaration of independence from the fear bred by our reliance on oil sheiks and our vulnerability to the troubled politics of the lands they rule.”

What does this mean in concrete terms? It’s empty rhetoric. “Energy independence” is the equivalent of pixie dust. McCain says he will support technological innovations, energy conservation (compact fluorescent light bulbs and a smart grid), and nukes. None of these, however worthy, will make much of a dent in oil consumption in the short or long run.

McCain’s chief advisor on energy policy is respected economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former head of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). He was the chief congressional number-cruncher on economic issues during the early days of the George W. Bush administration. He often came into conflict with the Bush political types on the costs and impacts of administration policy initiatives.

Holtz-Eakin has no particular expertise in energy or energy economics, but he is familiar with the terms of the debate and is well-regarded among many political and economic analysts. He has a deserved reputation for intellectual honesty, which will be tested during the coming campaign. He must have held his nose when McCain proposed the gas tax cut.

Barack Obama. Barack Obama, freshman Democratic senator from Illinois, says on his website (www.barackobama.com) that climate change “is one of the greatest moral challenges of our generation”—classic political hyperbole. Greater than ending hunger? Greater than supplying potable water to the world? Greater than conquering malaria? Greater than global access to electricity? He’s pushed for cap-and-trade legislation that is in the congressional mainstream.

As a corn-state legislator, Obama has been an advocate of corn-based ethanol. He downplays nuclear power—he’s a prince of political correctness—but ultimately acknowledges the value of nukes. “Nuclear power represents more than 70% of our non-carbon generated electricity. It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power from the table.” Not a strong endorsement of the atom, but significant nonetheless.

Who’s giving Obama advice on energy policy? Environmental activist Jason Grumet, executive director of the National Commission on Energy Policy (NCEP, www.energycommission.org), a bipartisan and mostly middle-of-the-road group of energy policy experts, is Obama’s energy guru.

Grumet is a lawyer with an undergraduate degree in environmental studies. Before holding the NCEP position he was executive director of the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM), a clean air lobbying group pushing regional approaches to air pollution, including carbon dioxide reductions. NESCAUM was a facilitator of the regional group that sued the Environmental Protection Agency, and won, on the issue of whether the federal government has authority to regulate CO2 emissions. By most assessments, Grumet is a good organizer and administrator—neither an intellectual heavyweight nor an ideological screamer.

Hillary Clinton. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is the ultimate old-line, mainstream Democrat. She supports cap-and-trade legislation on climate change and demonizes oil companies. Oil companies, argues Clinton, are the reason that gasoline prices are so high. They should be penalized by taxing their “windfall profits.” How this would lower gasoline prices is unstated, probably because she knows the case cannot be made.

In a speech last November (www.hillaryclinton.com), Clinton said that global warming “portends drastic changes in our way of life. The last two decades of the 20th century were the hottest in 400 years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that 11 of the past 12 years are among the warmest since 1850.” She also raised the specter of rising sea levels.

All this is classic alarmism so common in major elections. There is no evidence that the sea level has been rising beyond its normal increases over decades; the record shows no global climate temperature increase in the past decade. But such statements represent both Democratic and Republican, if not scientific, orthodoxy.

Clinton’s approach to climate policy is the same as that of her Democratic and Republican rivals: a U.S. cap-and-trade regime that many experts predict will simply chip at the margins of carbon dioxide emissions, rewarding speculators with windfall trading profits. Those will be untaxed.

Hillary Clinton’s advisor on energy and environmental policy is Gene Sperling. He was a major economic advisor to former President Bill Clinton. Sperling is a lawyer, not an economist, and certainly not an engineer. He has no particular expertise in energy policy, although he has vigorous views. That’s obvious when it comes to his advice on the gasoline tax moratorium, a boneheaded move. The policy didn’t parse, and the politics failed.

Take your pick

I see few differences among the candidates’ views, although McCain seems a little stronger on nuclear energy. I’ve highlighted, and scoffed at, some of the candidates’ positions and unveiled their policy advisors. I’ve given you places to go for more information. The candidates are not shy about telling their story on energy and the environment, no matter how thin.

Final advice: Don’t be a one-dimensional voter. The candidates don’t differ much on energy and environmental issues. They do differ significantly—more than a quarter’s worth—on other issues that may be as, or more, important: the war in Iraq, the economy, healthcare—areas in which POWER editors have no expertise or background. These are not one-dimensional candidates, and the totality of their positions are not defined by their views on energy and the environment.

See you at the polls.

(The answers to the quiz are: 1: b; 2: c; 3: a.)

—Kennedy Maize is a POWER contributing editor.