the observatory

Obama’s Energy Equivocations

NYT follows up on another flip-flop
February 5, 2008

A little more than a year ago, Barack Obama caused a bit of an uproar when he introduced legislation in the Senate that would have supported coal-to-liquids technology. The energy industry contends that the process reduces the environmental impact of the cheap, but dirty, fossil fuel. Many environmentalists and scientists think that it “has no place in a greenhouse-gas constrained world,” however, and were pleased when Obama effectively abandoned the bill last summer.

The press is now reporting that Obama has had another energy-related change of heart, though how this one will affect his campaign remains unclear. On Sunday, The New York Times published an excellent investigation into the Illinois senator’s record on nuclear energy. In December 2005, Chicago-based Exelon Corporation, the country’s largest nuclear power producer, announced that it had found tritium, a radioactive byproduct of nuclear power, in drinking water wells near its plant sixty miles southwest of the city. The levels of tritium did not exceed federal safety standards, but Obama and others were outraged that Exelon had taken “years” to disclose the leak. Three months after the announcement, in March 2006, the senator introduced a bill that would force nuclear power plants to “immediately” disclose any accidental leak of radioactive material that exceeded “allowable limits for normal operation.”

On the campaign trail, Obama has “boasted” about the legislation, according to Sunday’s article in the Times, by Mike McIntire. In December, Obama told a crowd in Iowa that it was “the only nuclear legislation that I’ve passed.” But a little fact checking revealed serious problems with that statement. As McIntire wrote:

A close look at the path his legislation took tells a very different story. While he initially fought to advance his bill, even holding up a presidential nomination to try to force a hearing on it, Mr. Obama eventually rewrote it to reflect changes sought by Senate Republicans, Exelon and nuclear regulators. The new bill removed language mandating prompt reporting and simply offered guidance to regulators, whom it charged with addressing the issue of unreported leaks.

As is the case with so much environmental regulation, all that was left of the bill was a system of voluntary reporting. And even this watered-down version wasn’t enough to satisfy Obama’s fellow lawmakers, as the legislation never made it to the Senate floor (though Obama reintroduced it last October). Nonetheless, according to McIntire’s report, the bill has “come in handy on the campaign trail,” as Obama has referred to it as evidence of his willingness to stand up to the nuclear lobby:

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Asked why Mr. Obama had cited it as an accomplishment while campaigning for president, the campaign noted that after the senator introduced his bill, nuclear plants started making such reports on a voluntary basis. The campaign did not directly address the question of why Mr. Obama had told Iowa voters that the legislation had passed.

This is stellar follow-up reporting on a story that had all but disappeared from the media’s radar. After the initial coverage of the leak outside Chicago and Obama’s ensuing disclosure legislation, few journalists covered the bill’s death by a thousand cuts. Already, however, McIntire’s article has inspired at least one other piece of solid reporting. In Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, Dan Morain and Maloy Moore explained why this issue is “relevant” in the 2008 presidential campaign:

In an about-face, companies that have a stake in the nuclear energy industry are giving large sums to Democrats running for president, after having showered their money on Republicans in past campaigns…

The shift is an example of what has troubled Republicans and heartened Democrats in this campaign: Interests once loyal to the GOP are tilting toward Democrats.

Like coal-to-liquids, nuclear energy is an oft discussed, but extremely controversial, source of “clean” energy. But with John Edwards, who adamantly opposed it (as do most environmental groups), out of the race, the way forward seems wide open on the nuclear front. According to Morain and Moore’s report, “Obama is the largest beneficiary of money from companies that have a stake in nuclear energy’s future.” Exelon, which reported the leak outside Chicago in 2005, has given him $275,000 over his career. Clinton (who was listed as a co-author on Obama’s failed 2006 leak-reporting bill, but who has not signed on since it was reintroduced in October) is the second largest beneficiary of nuclear industry largesse. At the party level, “Democrats have received the bulk-$536,000 to Republicans’ $294,000, a Times analysis of Federal Election Commission records shows.”

Morain and Moore astutely point out that both candidates’ proximity to the nuclear industry will be tested in California on Super Tuesday, “where anti-nuke attitudes run deep.” Outside the campaign, funding for nuclear got a shot in the arm from president Bush’s $3.1-trillion 2009 budget released Monday. Most of the money will go toward managing weapons stockpiles and improving security, but energy programs are up about $400 million. (“Clean” coal also got a boost, despite the Department of Energy’s recent decision to scrap FutureGen, its plan to build the nation’s first coal-fired power plant with zero carbon dioxide emissions.)

As an interesting aside, the journal Science recently published an article about another Obama flip-flop, this time on NASA and the future of space exploration. In November, the senator drew limited headlines when he announced that he would delay president Bush’s moon-to-Mars program by five years in order to pay for education initiatives. It seemed an intriguing position that set Obama apart from the his fellow Democrats, but according to the Science article, it caused a “howl” from space enthusiasts, and after winning the Iowa caucuses, Obama retreated from it, saying that he would stick to the current NASA schedule:

What happened? Obama’s sudden support for the rocket that will replace the shuttle as the country’s new vehicle to explore space demonstrates the surprising success of grassroots and Internet-based space efforts in affecting the course of the 2008 presidential campaign. Blogs such as Space Politics and NASA Watch, and organizations such as the Mars Society, keep a close eye on every utterance by a candidate on space policy. They instruct their audience how to contact the campaigns and even coach readers on how to get a space question inserted into a presidential debate.

Well, maybe, but explaining why Obama has reversed course is much easier than explaining how those decisions will affect his campaign. Another article from Science, published in early January, had this take: “Observers say the awkward shuffle reflects Obama’s relative inexperience in national politics.”

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