Before most people had ever heard of commercial paper, they knew that high oil prices were squeezing both their wallets and the nation's economy, and the presidential candidates spent more time talking about gas tanks than banks. The financial meltdown of recent weeks hasn't just overshadowed the energy crisis, it has eased it in the short term -- gasoline prices have fallen because oil traders fear that demand will shrink in a global recession. Yet meeting our energy challenges will remain among the most important concerns of the next president.
That's why it's doubly disappointing that neither Barack Obama nor John McCain has a responsible energy plan. In pandering to voters in swing states, both have backed dangerous, dirty energy sources in contradiction of their own principles.
The United States gets nearly half of its electricity from coal-fired plants. These plants account for about a third of the nation's emissions of carbon dioxide, the prime contributor to global warming. They are also a top source of other air pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, and worldwide they are the No. 1 source of deadly mercury pollution. You can't pretend to be a crusader against climate change and pollution, as both candidates do, while favoring expanded coal use -- yet Obama and McCain waste few opportunities to declare their support for “clean coal.” If by this they mean they want more research into pumping coal emissions underground, good for them. But the voters in coal-producing states such as West Virginia interpret the candidates' rhetoric as an endorsement of increased mining and burning of coal using existing processes that are anything but clean, and Obama and McCain have done nothing to disabuse them of that notion.
"Drill, baby, drill" has become one of the McCain campaign's catchphrases, yet the pursuit of increased offshore drilling is a purely political maneuver that government energy officials say won't lower prices significantly within 20 years. To his credit, Obama frequently points out that the United States sits on 3% of the world's oil supplies but uses 25% of the world's oil, so ending our reliance on foreign sources can be achieved only by cutting consumption and developing environmentally responsible biofuels -- yet he too agreed to end a federal ban on new offshore drilling projects.
And then there's "safe nuclear," a phrase as oxymoronic as "clean coal" that both candidates like to toss around. Nuclear waste remains toxic for millenniums, and no one has figured out a sufficiently permanent way of storing it. McCain's plan to build 45 nuclear plants by 2030 is either disingenuous or naive. Because the nation's existing plants are crumbling, they will have to be decommissioned as fast as new ones can be built, making it unlikely that there would be a net increase in nuclear power even if McCain's goal could be met. Moreover, private investors have no interest in building nuclear plants unless they receive generous subsidies and taxpayer-backed loans, yet the Congressional Budget Office considers such loans so risky that "well above 50%" of them would default. Nuclear power isn't just environmentally irresponsible, it's fiscally irresponsible.
Conservatives argue that it would be impossible to get all of our power from renewable sources such as the sun and wind, so we might as well get used to fossil fuels. This is a cynical excuse for continuing our reliance on dirty and climate-altering, but cheap, energy sources. Our power supply might never be completely clean, but we've barely scratched the surface of what could be done to improve energy efficiency and raise the share of renewable power. Clean power would create jobs for American workers and innovations that could be sold around the world, while greater efficiency would lower consumers' energy bills by cutting demand.
Early in the campaign, Obama and McCain were both unafraid to make such precepts the centerpiece of their energy plans. We can only hope that when one of these men finds himself in the White House, his brighter angels will win out, but the candidates' quick embrace of wrongheaded policies in reaction to an uptick in oil prices isn't encouraging.
Environmental policy is closely connected to energy policy, because energy generation is a source of many of the world's most pressing environmental woes. Obama and McCain both understand that global warming is a serious problem, and both have proposed capping carbon emissions to solve it, though Obama would impose stricter controls. On other environmental issues, there is a similar dynamic: McCain is greener than the GOP mainstream, but still not as green as Obama and the Democratic mainstream. A good example is the "roadless rule," a Clinton administration ban on road building in national forests that was overturned by President Bush. Obama co-sponsored a bill that would codify the ban in federal law; during his time in the Senate, McCain has voted for and against giving subsidies to timber companies for building forest roads. Advantage: Obama.
The roadless rule is only one of dozens of environmental protections that have been undermined or simply eliminated under Bush -- a big part of the next president's job will be trying to reseed the scorched earth left behind by the current one. Near the top of his list should be granting the Clean Air Act waiver allowing California to cut greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles, which was denied in December by the Environmental Protection Agency. The ruling was so blatantly political that it would be surprising if either McCain or Obama allowed it to stand, though Obama is likely to make overturning it a higher priority.
Obama and McCain are both well informed about environmental matters, and either would be a vast improvement over Bush. But the next president needs to be more than knowledgeable. He needs to have the political courage to demand change -- and possibly even sacrifice. Obama has shown little of this kind of courage so far, but McCain has shown still less.
This is the fourth editorial in a weeklong series on the issues and challenges facing the next president. The full series is available at latimes.com/positionpapers.