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Obama and McCain Campaigns Detail Energy Polices at Debate Co-sponsored by AAAS
Kurt E. Yeager
Daniel M. Kammen
STANFORD, Calif.—With the days ticking down to the 4 November presidential election, surrogates for John McCain and Barack Obama offered sharply different visions for increasing U.S. energy independence during a debate organized by Scientists and Engineers for America.
During the 90-minute session at Stanford University, co-sponsored by AAAS, the campaigns displayed a broad and sometimes surprising agreement on the urgent need to move toward energy independence as a way to address climate change and national security. But clear-cut differences emerged on critical philosophical and policy details for achieving those goals, such as the place of renewable energy in the nation's power portfolio and the role of the government in achieving the goals.
"Senator McCain is committed to ending our conflicted, contradictory, and short-sighted energy policies and to establish durable and realistic policies that rise above partisan politics to address our energy security while addressing the environment," said Kurt E. Yeager, co-chairman of the McCain California Energy Security Coalition. He described the U.S. dependence on foreign oil as "the height of almost lawlessness."
Daniel M. Kammen, a senior adviser to Obama on energy and environmental policy, called it "ridiculous" that U.S. investment in energy research and development is less now in real dollars than it was before the OPEC oil crisis of the early 1970s and said Obama would seek a dramatic increase in R&D investment. "Senator Obama in the last debate said that energy is his No. 1 issue," Kammen said. "It's the first time a presidential candidate has said this while running for office."
Scientists and Engineers for America is a non-profit organization dedicated to informing policymakers about science and informing researchers about policy and the policymaking process. About 375 people attended the 21 October debate, and they heard an exchange far more substantive—and more collegial—than voters typically get from candidate debates or campaign news coverage.
Kammen, representing Obama, is the Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy at the University of California, Berkeley. He was a coordinating lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. He also serves on the executive committee of the $500 million Energy Biosciences Institute, a research collaboration funded by British Petroleum.
Yeager, representing McCain, is the former president and chief executive officer of the Electric Power Research Institute. He chaired the recent World Energy Council Study on Energy and Climate Change, and served on the renewable energy panel for the just-completed National Academies' U.S. Energy Future study. He previously served as director of energy R&D planning for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Research.
The debate was moderated by Paul Rogers, the resources and environmental writer at the San Jose Mercury News and managing editor of "QUEST," a new TV and radio series about science and environmental issues in Northern California that airs on KQED.
During the debate, both Kammen and Yeager found broad agreement on a complex range of issues that shape current climate and energy challenges. They agreed that the U.S. electrical grid, based on 19th century technology, must be upgraded and made more efficient for the 21st century. They agreed that the nation has failed to develop effective power and fuel policies, despite decades of warning. They agreed on the need for a cap-and-trade system as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (though they differ on its structure). Both would break with the administration of President George W. Bush and use the Clean Air Act to combat greenhouse gas emissions. And, they agreed, U.S. policy leaders must begin a constructive long-term engagement with other nations to address environmental and energy issues.
But within that general consensus, there were sharp disagreements. For example, one question from the audience asked what voters could expect in the first 100 days of a new administration.
McCain, said Yeager, would "first and foremost" move to establish a program to overhaul the electricity system. And he suggested McCain would move to aggressively implement the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which sets a 2020 deadline for achieving a national fuel economy standard of 35 miles per gallon and a dramatic increase in alternative fuel supplies. The measure also sets new standards for improved energy efficiency in lighting and appliances and puts the federal government on a path to greater energy efficiency in its use of energy.
When asked by Rogers whether McCain would reverse the Bush administration and sign the waiver sought by California allowing it to set independent standards for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from new cars, Yeager called such waivers ineffective. He said that McCain instead would get the federal government to "do its job" by setting tighter emission standards itself.
Kammen said Obama, in the first 100 days, would approve California's waiver request. That, he suggested, would have a wide-ranging impact: It would allow California to move ahead with a plan to set higher standards. It would remove a distraction to important talks with U.S. automakers about advancing clean fuel and clean vehicles. And it would help get the EPA back in the business of enforcing environmental standards.
Kammen said those first days of an Obama administration also would feature a "critically important" start to a program-by-program cost-benefit accounting of how much federal programs contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. And, he said, Obama would call local government and others to a federal summit that would explore the most innovative actions they've taken to use energy more cleanly and efficiently. Some of these, he said, could then be put into use by the federal government.
In the surrogates' descriptions, the differences between McCain and Obama extended to a range of crucial issues:
The Role of Government in Energy Policy and Innovation.Yeager suggested that McCain would be cautious in using government powers and would rely heavily on private industry and markets. Kammen said that under Obama, the government would assert itself more to shape the environment for energy innovation. And in the process, he said, government energy efforts would help create jobs at a time of fiscal crisis.
For example, while Kammen reminded the audience of Obama's plan for a 10-year, $150 billion energy R&D program, Yeager was touting McCain's support for "open and truly competitive markets that unleash the unmatched power of American innovation to harness our equally unmatched energy resources."
Kammen, however, said private industry is not meeting the need. "Right now the private sector in energy, while it is finally ramping up, invests less than a half-percent of its revenue back into R&D, while the biotech field is routinely in the 12% to 16% range," he said.
Obama is seeking a windfall profits tax on oil companies, while McCain opposes that, the surrogates said. Kammen said Obama supports a long-term extension of the renewable production tax credit and investment tax credit, but said that McCain had voted against them.
They also disagreed on proposals for a mandated renewable energy portfolio, which would require utilities to produce a fixed percentage of power from renewable sources by a target date. Yeager said that America's archaic power grid needs to be upgraded before it can handle a massive influx of power from new sources. Kammen said that the grid could be upgraded at the same time as utilities are moving toward greater use of renewables.
Cap and Trade Programs for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions.Both candidates reject a federal tax on carbon emissions of the sort that was advocated by former Vice President Al Gore. Both Yeager and Kammen said that the candidates see a cap and trade regime as being stronger and more sensitive in its ability to control carbon emissions.
Generally, a cap-and-trade program sets limits for greenhouse gas emissions. The government would sell the permits or give them away; utilities and industries that emit the gasses could buy them and sell them. Over time, fewer permits would be available, and the cost presumably would be higher. That would help reduce overall emissions.
Both campaigns have staked out their objectives: Obama would auction the permits to reduce carbon emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. McCain's goal is a 60% reduction by 2050.
At the Stanford debate, Kammen said auctioning the permits would essentially set a price for polluting, and that proceeds could be used for a variety of purposes, including efforts to promote green development and green jobs in low-income urban and rural areas. He was critical of McCain's program, joining other analysts who have found that it would initially give some of the permits away. That approach that has been questioned by some critics who say that creates insufficient incentive for polluters to stop polluting.
Yeager insisted that McCain's plan would not give away permits. It would set firm objectives in five-year increments and hold polluters accountable for meeting them. That would be effective without bankrupting private industry, he said. A cap-and-trade regime has to be a "sustainable strategy that gets beyond the enthusiasm of the moment" so that it can endure long-term, he added.
Development of Alternative Energy Sources.Both campaigns strongly committed to expanding the menu of U.S. energy sources, and to tapping into alternative energy. But as described by Yeager and Kammen, each favors a substantially different mix: McCain favors more oil and gas drilling and dramatic expansion of nuclear power and clean coal technology; he has banked on efforts to develop electric-powered automobiles. Obama would commit more heavily to renewables such as wind and solar power.
Yeager said the problems of clean coal and nuclear power are resolvable technical problems. "Let's stop condemning our energy source and start condemning the technology that we depend on" for their use, he said. "Coal, oil, and nuclear power are all very important energy resources not only for the immediate future but literally for at least the rest of this century, not only here but around the world."
Though one question from the audience suggested that clean-coal technology might be a decade away, both speakers insisted it should be pursued nonetheless. Yeager said technology today extracts 30% of coal's potential energy, and that could "very easily" be increased to 50%. Added Kammen: "If we truly are going to beat down the carbon dioxide problem, it would be foolish to throw out an area that could be a player."
Both candidates oppose drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, and both campaigns said at the debate that they would grant latitude to states in allowing offshore oil drilling. Still, the issue provoked a pointed exchange.
When asked whether a McCain administration would impose drilling on California, for example, Yeager noted that states control drilling within a three-mile range from shore; when pressed on whether McCain would impose drilling in federally controlled waters 50 miles offshore, Yeager said that "in principle" the federal government had that power. But, he added: "I think it is unlikely, frankly, that there will be much drilling going on beyond that. The state could be confident that that would not be imposed."
Kammen's reply: "I think I would be worried with the qualifications I just heard."
The two campaigns differed sharply on nuclear power. Kammen said Obama opposes the proposed use of Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste disposal site, noting the opposition of Nevada officials and residents. McCain supports it, Yeager said.
"We need to get on with it," he said of renewed commitment to nuclear power. "This country has the ability to solve those (waste-storage) problems. And we must recognize that the world will rely on nuclear energy. I do not want to deny future generations—my grandchildren—because we do not have the wherewithal or the commitment to move forward with the technology."
Kammen said that Obama supports nuclear power "if it can be done safely." But he called McCain's plan for 45 new nuclear power plants "unrealistic." No new nuclear power plants have come online in the United States since 1982, he said, and only one manufacturer in the world—a foundry in Japan—can build the nuclear containment vessels.
McCain's plan, Kammen said, does not account for rapidly changing renewable energy technology, and he noted that Denmark, Germany and Spain have made a successful commitment to wind power. The ability to harness clean energy "far more than we imagined 10 or 20 years ago is real," Kammen said. "You cannot emphasize one part of the equation without the other."
In addition to AAAS, the campaign forum was co-sponsored by the American Institute of Biological Sciences; IEEE-USA; the American Chemical Society; the American Physical Society; the American Institute of Physics; the American Society of Mechanical Engineers; and the Stanford Center for Magnetic Nanotechnology;.
30 October 2008