Turning Point: Energy

Finally, real differences between the candidates for the press to explore

This is part four of a series on the start of the 2008 presidential election’s general campaign. Links to the rest of the series can be found at the bottom of the article.

A month ago, the Republicans’ presumptive nominee for president, John McCain, made a media splash with a speech reaffirming his commitment to tackle global warming. It was the “daylight” needed to pry open the candidates’ positions on climate change that reporters had sought throughout the primaries, during which time it had remained a backburner issue. As many reporters have come to realize, however, the climate story is fundamentally an energy story, and as journalists approach the general election there will be many avenues to explore.

As much as editors have come to love articles about “green” power sources like solar and wind, the most pressing questions for the candidates revolve around the our traditional fossil favorites—coal and oil. Foremost on voters’ minds are skyrocketing gas prices. Pump pain already sparked a press frenzy in April when McCain and then Hillary Clinton called for a federal “gas-tax holiday” over the summer. Clinton’s rival, Barack Obama, vociferously opposed the idea, calling it mere politicking that would do little to help drivers. With the general election now effectively under way, it’s time revisit this integral subject—whether it’s the price of oil, cap-and-trade legislation, or some other energy efficiency measure, voters must know if and when each candidate would resort to some form of “safety valve” that would pull the plug on runaway electricity or gasoline prices.

“But what to say about a problem that defies easy or painless solutions,” asked a savvy article from The Wall Street Journal in late May, referring to the cost of gas. “Here is a suggestion: Remind American that the country has been here before — and that the nation isn’t helpless in the face of rising energy prices.” The story referred, of course, to the oil shock of the mid-1970s and told how creation of the Alaskan oil pipeline and Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards respectively increased supply of, and decreased demand for, foreign oil (the federal government even lowered the national speed limit to fifty-five miles per hour, too). So yes, we’ve been here before, but what’s new is this: increasing our supply of domestic oil is no longer such a desirable or even viable (given peak-oil worries) option, but demand is still on the table and can be reduced with efficiency measures.

Unfortunately, cap-and-trade is a policy whose impact is geared more toward power companies than automobile manufacturers. Given that, reporters should look farther into the next president’s term to find new and meaningful questions. One of the most important—and so far wholly overlooked—concerns a new federal transportation bill that will be up for debate on Capitol Hill in 2010. If boosting oil supply is not a viable option, and reducing demand is, then reporters should consider asking the presidential candidates about more revolutionary steps, such as breaking the highway lobby’s hold on Congress and diverting those resources toward improving the national rail system and urban planning built around public transportation rather than the automobile.

The oil issue is fraught, but maybe not as fraught as the lingering problem of America’s number one energy source, the cheapest and dirtiest of all - coal. As another worthwhile Journal article recently noted, “The primary season ends in Montana, the state with the greatest coal reserves,” but “Coal country [stretching far beyond the Treasure State] lacks consensus on a nominee.”

That’s because both candidates back the idea of “clean” coal. Of course, they might be backing it for different reasons than economists. Number-crunchers’ predictions that the costs of action (i.e. cap-and-trade) will be lower than the costs of inaction in the long run are staked on the belief that carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) will quickly become a viable and widespread technology at coal-fired power plants.

Given the weight of politics and practicality placed upon CCS, journalists must press the candidates for their thoughts on projects like the now defunct FutureGen. Just a year ago, FutureGen promised to be the first zero-emissions coal plant, but the Department of Energy pulled the plug when costs ballooned well beyond original projections. Would Obama, for instance, revive the project, and if so, how? (Along the same lines, reporters should push the candidates to talk more about nuclear power, which they both support as a non-carbon-emitting alternative to fossil fuels—though safety gets the lion’s share of press attention, it may be less of a concern than the huge cost overruns that have plagued the industry since its inception.)

Beyond all of these carbonaceous considerations, of course, it is equally important that McCain and, presumably, Obama be pressed to detail their plans to create market incentives and mandates for renewable energy sources like solar, wind, geothermal, and biologic. As they do that, they must also talk about how those systems will mesh with the nation’s ailing power grid (a vital infrastructure question that has been totally ignored).

We need more specifics about the candidates’ cap-and-trade plans. That is especially true now that the Lieberman-Warner bill, which both McCain and Obama said they would have supported had they not missed the cloture vote, is dead in the water. As (again) The Wall Street Journal put it this week in what was probably the most detailed post-primary article about energy issues, their “goals may sound similar, but the candidates would pursue drastically different paths to achieve them.” And finally, McCain and Obama must outline what they think the U.S. negotiating position should be regarding an international emissions reductions treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol. With those answers in mind, voters will have a much better understanding of the energy options that will affect their futures when they go to the polls in November.

Turning Point:

Part One: Scandal! Oh, Nevermind

Part Two: Let’s get serious

Part Three: The Supreme Court

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