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OPINION: McCain, Obama's Energy Policies Lack Power

Presidential candidates blame politics for U.S. oil dependence but offer meager solutions.
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When it comes to energy policy, both presidential candidates agree on the uselessness of politicians in Washington.

Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) acknowledged bluntly on Monday that he Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) both see the political deadlock the same way:

"I couldn't agree more with the explanation that Senator McCain offered a few weeks ago. He said, "Our dangerous dependence on foreign oil has been thirty years in the making, and was caused by the failure of politicians in Washington to think long-term about the future of the country."

That doesn't bode well for real policy change no matter which candidate wins the White House. National concern over $4-a-gallon gas makes the issue unavoidable, however.

A recent poll

by Quinnipiac University shows voters in swing states care more about energy policy than they do about Iraq.

The discussion for both candidates begins with the importance of energy security and the dangers of global warming. They remark on working to wean America off of foreign oil, in particular from Arab countries and Venezuela, which could be difficult. America produces 3% of the world's oil but uses 25%. Both have called for tighter regulation of oil markets to stop speculators. Furthermore, they encourage carbon emissions reductions with a cap-and-trade system.

So, they focus on renewable energy as the answer. Obama proposes a $150 billion investment in green technology over a 10 year period. The effort would be a public-private venture. He hopes to spur 5 million new jobs, many of which would come in the high-paying manufacturing sector.

McCain also supports investing in an energy future. He plans to create a tax provision reducing the cost of research and development for companies by 10%. He would rationalize the current proposals for solar power and other alternative energy sources to ensure commercial feasibility. He endorses spending $2 billion a year on developing clean coal technology. He also endorses green technology, though he has no specific proposal or incentive outlined.

Both candidates favor more hybrid or electric cars. McCain proposes a $300 million reward for the development of fuel cell technology, while Obama would offer incentives to Ford

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and GM

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to develop fuel cells and a $7,000 tax credit to purchase hybrids.

The candidates differ greatly on how to move forward on specific energy policy. In the short term, Obama suggests an economic stimulus package to help the average American pay for soaring gas prices. It sounds good. The only problem is that he proposes to pay for it by instituting a windfall tax on big oil companies, like Exxon

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and Chevron

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, over a five-year period. The windfall tax bombed during the Jimmy Carter administration.

McCain's only short-term solution is cutting the gas tax. The idea might appeal to drivers who would save about $50 a month. The problem would be that the gas tax helps cover the cost of maintaining federal highways and bridges, which require upgrading and employ thousands.

McCain has two major proposals that Obama opposes. First, McCain changed his previous opposition of offshore drilling and now strongly supports it. Polls show that 50% of voters favor drilling, and another 10% of people switching to favor it because of the high price of oil. Second, McCain wants more nuclear power. He has called for 45 nuclear power plants by 2030 and 100 new plants total. He criticized Obama for not being open to all options:

"Anybody who says that we can achieve energy independence without using and increasing these existing energy resources either doesn't have the experience to understand the challenge we face or isn't giving the American people some straight talk."

Obama opposes offshore drilling, though he wavered over the weekend by suggesting he might support some drilling as an energy compromise in Congress. He spoke in favor of creating stronger "use it or lose it" provisions for federal land leases to oil companies. Oil companies presently lease 68 million acres of land but leave 40 million unused.

Obama has not wholly endorsed nuclear power. During debates in the Democratic primaries, he spoke unconvincingly against nuclear power. His energy plan now states he has reservations based on security and storage issues. He has introduced legislation in the Senate "to establish guidelines for tracking, controlling, and accounting for spent fuel at nuclear power plants."

Neither candidate has a stellar voting record on energy issues. McCain repeatedly voted against fuel efficiency standards for cars during his three decades in Congress, although he now states he would strongly enforce the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards.

Obama has bashed McCain for taking money from big oil executives, but he voted in favor of the 2005 Energy bill that gave incentives to big oil companies.

Both candidates appear to blow with the wind on energy policy. I wouldn't bet on comprehensive change any time soon.