On Sunday, The Washington Post published an editorial criticizing Sen. John McCain’s decision, carried out over the last few months, to reframe his energy policy around the idea of boosting the domestic production of oil:

We’re happy that both Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama support a comprehensive approach to weaning the nation off imported oil. But what was missing from Mr. McCain’s acceptance speech was straight talk about the other branch of a sensible energy policy: combating climate change.

That shift in McCain’s energy policy, which once emphasized cap-and-trade rather than drilling, is one of the most significant developments of the post-primary campaign, and has helped the Arizona senator quickly close the gap on Illinois senator Barack Obama. As BusinessWeek recently reported:

Already, McCain has made headway with voters with his full-throated backing for expanded offshore drilling, along with increased expansion of nuclear power, coal, and other energy sources. Analysts say that position, compared with Obama’s focus on a longer-term strategy to boost alternative energy, is one reason McCain was able to even the race out before the conventions began.

Partly because McCain has successfully pressured Obama to reconsider drilling, however, the Post’s editorial concluded that “there’s not much difference” between the two candidates’ energy policies. That statement is grossly incorrect, and sets the state of environmental campaign coverage (and worse, public opinion) back almost eight months.

Myriad news outlets have commented happily on the fact that, whoever wins the election, the next president will be much more progressive than the Bush administration on energy and environmental issues. That may still be the case, but CJR spent most of the primary season arguing that there is much more “daylight” between the campaigns than is readily apparent, and that reporters must acknowledge that to make meaningful evaluation of their plans. Thankfully, many have, which makes the Post’s naïve observation all the more stark.

Take the drilling question. True, Obama has said that he would support more drilling in coastal waters, but only, as the Post itself points out, as part of a broader energy plan designed to boost the production of renewable power sources like wind and solar. That is much different than the “Drill, baby, drill!” rhetoric of the McCain campaign.

McCain still supports a cap-and-trade scheme to reduce U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions, of course, but as a CNBC headline recently put it, the “Climate Consensus Obscures Obama, McCain Differences.” The ensuing article reported that:

First and foremost, the candidates agree on a market-based cap-and-trade program that will establish a price for carbon dioxide emissions that tightens over time, providing an incentive for businesses to develop cleaner energy technology. The similarity, however, pretty much ends there.

That last line should sound familiar; many other savvy reporters have used it. An article in the Financial Times, for instance, also begins by observing that both candidates back mandatory carbon reductions, but concludes that:

That is where the similarity ends. The difference between Mr. McCain’s plan, which would initially -allocate tradeable carbon permits for free, and Mr. Obama’s, which would start with a 100 per cent auction of permits, is large.

Obama’s plan also calls for an emissions reduction target—eighty percent below 1990 levels by 2050—that is both stricter than McCain’s (who wants sixty percent cuts) and more congruent with what scientists say is necessary to combat global warming.

Despite these significant details, however, National Public Radio reported last month that, “The candidates differ a bit in how they would like to see cap-and-trade implemented.” A bit? NPR, like The Washington Post, generally produces excellent climate coverage, but that sentence is just as much of an understatement of the candidates’ differences as the Post’s editorial. Major outlets like these should know better.

Evidence of divergence abounds. Obama and McCain both support alternative energy technologies, but they have totally different ideas about how best to do so. They disagree about taxing the profits of oil companies, and, perhaps most importantly right now, they disagree about what energy-related qualifications a vice president should have. As Reuters’s Deborah Zabarenko reported, in an article that speculated about the “Best bet to turn the White House green”:

Early in the campaign, both [candidates] were seen as being an improvement over the current administration on the environment, but the difference between these two “green” candidates became more apparent after the Arizona senator advocated more drilling for oil off the U.S. coastlines and chose controversial Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.

The superiority of either candidate’s energy policy is beside the point. What should be obvious and clearly important is that their platforms on this critical issue are, despite superficial similarities, very different. Thankfully, most journalists have made that vital point, but the Post’s editorial badly obscured it.

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.