Dueling energy agendas

Simon is a Times staff writer.

If Barack Obama and John McCain agree on nothing else, they agree that one of the nation’s most urgent challenges is curbing its dependence on foreign oil and addressing the energy-related problem of global warming.

Indeed, when it comes to energy, the two major-party presidential candidates are embracing so many of the same points that it can be hard to tell whether there’s any real difference between them.

From offshore oil drilling and nuclear power to windmills and electric cars, there’s hardly a serious idea to which both haven’t given at least a qualified nod.

Yet beneath the talking points and sound bites, there are significant differences in how Obama and McCain would be likely to approach a problem that’s haunted the nation for more than three decades -- differences that boil down to priorities.


Although both say they are open to almost the entire spectrum of energy options, no chief executive has enough time or political capital to do everything. What the next president chooses to push first and hardest will probably define what’s eventually achieved. Other energy options will almost certainly move to the back burner.

Viewed through this prism, the differences between McCain and Obama begin to come into focus.

What the Republican standard-bearer has talked about most and would presumably make his top priorities are drilling for oil in U.S. coastal waters and moving to bring 45 more nuclear power plants online by 2030.

Moreover, to achieve both goals, McCain would rely heavily on the private sector and on technologies that already exist -- not on things that still must be invented or undergo extensive development.

As McCain says of nuclear plants, “If France can produce 80% of its electricity with nuclear power, why can’t we?”

Offshore oil-drilling techniques are also well advanced.

For Democratic rival Obama, the primary emphasis is on leapfrogging ahead to a dramatically reshaped economy that uses energy more efficiently, relies more on renewable power sources such as wind, and goes all-out to develop clean coal and plug-in cars.

To achieve those goals, the government should play a leading role, Obama says, spending $150 billion in federal funds over the next 10 years “to catalyze private efforts to build a clean energy future,” as his energy plan puts it.

That would include billions of dollars for a public-private partnership to help Detroit reinvent itself as the clean-car capital of the world. That way, the Illinois senator says, “the new fuel-efficient cars can be built in the U.S. by American workers rather than overseas.”

In addition to relying on government action, the core of Obama’s energy strategy depends on achieving technological breakthroughs and developing major new energy systems on a large scale.

For example, technology is far from fully developed for generating electricity from coal without the greenhouse gases and other environmental pollution of present-day coal-fired power plants that supply 50% of the country’s electricity.

Much the same is true for the know-how and infrastructure required to convert today’s petroleum-dependent transportation system to such things as plug-in cars.

Regardless of who wins the White House, the next president will make little headway toward energy independence unless large numbers of Americans decide to change long-held beliefs and accept radical, even costly, changes that many have resisted for most of the last 40 years.

For example, moving away from fossil fuels would require the development of vast new systems for generating and distributing alternative forms of power, and potentially play havoc with such basic industries as coal mining, railroads and oil refining -- along with the jobs, financial networks and other systems dependent on the old energy forms.

The decline in world oil prices may have drained some urgency from the issue, but the process of moving beyond fossil fuels must begin somewhere. Now may be the time.

If so, what would the pursuit of McCain’s or Obama’s top priorities mean for the country 10 years or so down the road?

The Arizona senator is calling for an almost 50% increase in the number of U.S. nuclear power plants. Half of the nation’s electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, which are a major source of environmentally damaging carbon dioxide, or CO2, emissions, so a major increase in nuclear power could help in the fight against global warming.

McCain’s 45 new nuclear plants could eliminate an estimated 420 million metric tons of CO2 emissions each year. Coal plants now emit about 1.9 billion tons of CO2.

Most oil goes into the transportation system, which makes relatively little use of electricity.

France, which McCain cites as a model, generates about 80% of its electricity from nuclear power, yet its oil imports have risen steadily.

When it comes to new offshore drilling, this year’s surge in gasoline prices weakened congressional opposition to the long-standing ban, but most experts say an all-out program would only slow the decline in domestic oil production, not turn it around.

Obama’s strategy may seem to move more directly than McCain’s toward the kinds of major changes that experts say are required for any long-term solution to the energy problem, but such changes face daunting obstacles.

Consider some of the issues raised by his vow to get 10% of the country’s electric power from renewable sources such as wind by 2012, and 25% by 2025. (Currently, about 3% of U.S. electric power comes from renewables, excluding hydro.)

Obama’s energy plan says he would reach his goal by creating federal standards mandating the higher levels. The requirement would “spur greater private investment,” it says.

Given the country’s economic problems, raising huge amounts of private capital to build scores of new wind, tide or geothermal power-generation systems would not be easy. And rates paid by consumers would almost certainly rise -- raising sensitive political issues, especially during an economic downturn.

Also, although areas such as North Dakota could become large-scale, reliable suppliers of wind power, the current system of transmission lines does not connect the Dakotas with the major population centers that consume most of the electricity. That could be changed, and Obama advocates major improvement in the grid system.

But reconfiguring and improving the U.S. power grid, though widely regarded as necessary, are also expensive and sure to provoke hundreds of time-consuming “not in my backyard” disputes -- just as proposals for building new wind-turbine farms are doing, even among environmentally conscious liberals.

Similarly, Obama’s pledge to put 1 million plug-in hybrid cars that get as much as 150 miles per gallon on the road by 2015 and to create 5 million jobs by helping American industry become the world leader in manufacturing energy-efficient cars and other products would be a significant step forward.

It would also require major technological advances and enormous capital investment, both of which may be hard to come by under present economic circumstances.

The sagging economy -- and the desperate condition of U.S. automakers -- would also make it hard for Obama to push for higher auto efficiency standards.




The differences

The candidates share a goal of reducing dependence on foreign oil and promoting development of domestic energy sources, but offer different ways to get there:


John McCain advocates building 45 nuclear power plants by 2030, and 100 eventually. Barack Obama is open to expanding nuclear energy but says security, waste and defense concerns must be addressed first.



McCain wants to let states decide whether to allow oil and gas exploration off their coasts. Obama says he is open to limited coastal drilling as part of a broader energy compromise.



Obama calls for putting

1 million plug-in hybrid cars that can travel up to 150 miles per gallon on the road by 2015 -- part of a $150-billion decadelong program to promote energy-saving technologies and cleaner energy sources. He supports a $7,000 tax credit for purchase of advanced- technology vehicles. McCain proposes a $300-million prize for a next-generation car battery and a $5,000 tax credit for purchase of cars with zero carbon emissions.



Obama proposes requiring utilities to generate 10% of their electricity from renewables, such as solar and wind power, by 2012, and 25% by 2025. McCain in 2005 voted against a similar measure. Opponents argued that such a standard should be left to states and could drive up utility costs in regions without bright sunshine or strong wind. Obama favors expanding home-grown biofuels in the nation’s gas supply, from 36 billion gallons to 60 billion gallons a year by 2030, with the increase coming from nonfood sources such as switch grass and wood chips. McCain has called for ending ethanol subsidies.



Both support efforts to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants, which generate about half of U.S. electricity but are a major source of greenhouse gas. McCain wants to spend $2 billion a year to reduce emissions. Obama wants to work with private industry to develop five “first-of-a-kind commercial-scale” coal-fired plants that would capture carbon dioxide emissions.



Obama favors a windfall profits tax on oil companies. McCain opposes it.


Source: Times research