Beyond Energy Stump Speeches

Two articles retake control of the media spotlight

In a series of speeches since the beginning of May, Senator John McCain has effectively grabbed control of the media spotlight—at least where energy is concerned. First it was the “gas-tax holiday,” then global warming, then offshore oil drilling. As I write this, he is in Fresno, California taking questions from reporters about his plan to “leapfrog” current car-battery technology. McCain’s opponent, Senator Barack Obama, has had his moments, too, calling for tax on windfall oil profits and such. But, on energy, he has mostly found himself responding to McCain’s initiatives, generally referring to them as “gimmicks.”

There has been punditry aplenty and much coverage of these altercations between McCain and Obama, but few reporters have been able to kick their dependency on the candidates’ verbal wrangling, retake control of the media the spotlight, and illuminate more shaded corners of the campaign. Two recent articles serve as notable exceptions to that rule, however. Neither one is founded upon something the candidates said; instead, they both focus on their campaigns’ (and advisors’) deep-seeded ties to the energy industry. They may not be as interesting as the typical horserace coverage, but in revealing the influences that guide each candidate’s energy policy, they are certainly more substantive.

The first article came from the Houston Chronicle on Saturday and focused on Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican and ex-senator who is now an investment banker for Swiss giant UBS. (See Elinore Longobardi’s story for more on “Foreclosure Phil.”) The article set itself up as an investigation of sorts, declaring that:

The Chronicle has learned that the Democratic National Committee is planning to launch a Web site to shine a negative light on the record of Gramm and two other top McCain economic advisers, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and ex-Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin.

Many Democrats (Obama included) accuse Gramm of pushing through a major banking deregulation law in 1999, while he was chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, which “contributed to the current mortgage crisis.” They also accuse him of engineering “the Enron loophole,” a 2000 provision that exempted energy trading on electronic platforms from federal regulation. Democrats and others say that loophole is what allowed commodity speculators to drive up oil prices over the last year; Gramm, of course, denies that he was as instrumental in the deregulation legislation as Democrats would have voters believe.

(To be fair, the Chronicle doesn’t deserve all the credit for homing in on Gramm — Mother Jones recently covered his anti-regulatory hijinks and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann had an excellent investigation last week of how Gramm helped “unleash speculators to run up gas prices.”)

The other recent article that broke the mold of stump-speech reporting appeared in The New York Times on Monday and scrutinized the Obama camp’s ties to the ethanol industry — a group that is perhaps just as controversial as oil speculators. One of Obama’s key advisors is former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat who now serves on the boards of three ethanol companies. Like energy deregulation, many experts have come to view ethanol (at least the kind that’s made from corn and other foodstuffs) as a failed, even disastrous, strategy. Once heralded as the alternative fuel of the future, a number of scientific reports have determined that it’s not as efficient as once thought, and that it even boosts greenhouse gas emissions when land is cleared for its production. Many also blame American ethanol requirements for driving up world food prices. Yet, Obama, who represents Illinois, the country’s second largest corn producer, has stuck by industry on this one, according to the Times:

Mr. McCain advocates eliminating the multibillion-dollar annual government subsidies that domestic ethanol has long enjoyed. As a free trade advocate, he also opposes the 54-cent-a-gallon tariff that the United States slaps on imports of ethanol made from sugar cane, which packs more of an energy punch than corn-based ethanol and is cheaper to produce…

Mr. Obama, in contrast, favors the subsidies, some of which end up in the hands of the same oil companies he says should be subjected to a windfall profits tax. In the name of helping the United States build “energy independence,” he also supports the tariff, which some economists say may well be illegal under the World Trade Organization’s rules but which his advisers say is not.

According to the Times’s review, “Ethanol industry executives and advocates have not made large donations to either candidate for president, an examination of campaign contribution records shows. But they have noted the difference between Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain.”

News consumers should be thankful that the Houston Chronicle and the Times have noted the difference, too, and that they did not wait for the candidates to make it explicit. Covering the energy-related shouting matches between Obama and McCain is fine and dandy, and it is wonderful to see that the subject is becoming a leading campaign issue, but reporters (and voters) should remember that track records and facts often speak louder than words.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.