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Thursday, June 12, 2008

McCain Energy Policy Watch: What We Do Know

I came across some discussion on the blogs about McCain's energy policy, and since we've been beating this drum for some time now, I decided to jump in. This post was going to be about Obama's renewable enrgy investment proposals, contrasted with the absence of McCain's, but instead let's step back and figure out what we can piece together about what McCain's energy policy would be like from his record and statements.

Steve Benen was wondering why McCain was pushing the gas tax holiday so much, and independently discovered what we've been saying for a while.
"But something else occurred to me this afternoon. When pondering why on earth McCain would continue to push obvious nonsense about an important issue, the answer came to me: it’s because he has nothing else to say.

I went to his website to check on his energy policy. On his home page, there’s plenty about golf gear, but nothing about energy or gas prices. Eventually, after digging around for a while, I found this:
"John McCain Will Help Americans Hurting From High Gasoline And Food Costs. Americans need relief right now from high gas prices. John McCain will act immediately to reduce the pain of high gas prices."
That’s not an excerpt of a longer position paper, that’s the entire text of McCain’s position on gas prices. He’ll “act immediately.” How? No one knows. With what kind of policy? It’s a total mystery. (In contrast, Obama has a detailed policy page on oil and energy.)"
That's exactly what I went through about five months ago gearing up for our debate with the College Republicans. I was pretty shocked that McCain didn't have an energy page on his website, and further digging bore out the absence of any plan.

The esteemed Hilzoy, however, calls the assertion that McCain has no plan "about two-thirds right." He points out something I made clear in the first installment of the energy policy watch; that while McCain doesn't have any policy papers or issues pages about energy, he has spoken about the issue a lot, and (more recently) he has put forward a cap-and-trade scheme. Hilzoy identifies the mistaken third thusly.
The one-third wrong part: there's more than what Steve found. The part about lowering gas prices is just as lame as he says: McCain fleshes out his promise to lower gas prices by saying he'll institute the gas holiday (which won't lower them), stop filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (already happened), and -- well, that's it.

However, McCain does have a Climate Change policy page, which describes his proposal for a cap and trade system. He expands on this in a speech on climate change policy, and adds some useful details: for instance, some permits would be auctioned, and some of the money from those auctions would be directed to "to help build the infrastructure of a post-carbon economy" (which seems to mean research and some infrastructure.) In a speech to the Detroit Economic Club, he says that "we need to work together to increase CAFE standards to a level that is practical and achievable for all new vehicles" and that "we need to be at the cutting edge of green technologies", though how we will get there is not explained.
Emphasis mine. We started the McCain Energy Policy Watch before his climate change proposals came out (some say it was because of us that they came out...Ok, nobody says that.) But even with his cap-and-trade initiative the problem with McCain on energy is that he likes to talk a good game without backing it up. When you hear pundits extolling his "maverickness" one of the issues they often cite is his breaking with the President on energy. McCain voted against the 2005 energy bill because of the oil industry pork. It's worth pointing out why Obama voted for it, though.

The production tax credit was slated to expire at the end of 2005, and a two year extension was included, as well as fairly significant other renewable incentives. It's true that the bill, the Dick Cheney Energy Bill for Lobbyists, was full of pork for oil companies too, but in the minority it was a pill some Democrats swallowed. Observe the effect of the PTC on installed wind capacity in the US.

McCain values his image as a porkbuster more than an image as a "green." He has been talking a good game at town halls for years without ever really backing it up. He has repeatedly voted to oppose extending the production tax credit for wind energy, on the grounds that he doesn't support subsidies, but then he says he supports subsidies for nuclear energy (without offering details, which kind of matter). This doesn't even hit on McCain's hatred of Amtrak, and whether he considers land use and mass transit part of a national strategy on energy.

In McCain's original energy speech in April 2007 he said
"As President, I'll propose a national energy strategy that will amount to a declaration of independence from the fear bred by our reliance on oil sheiks and our vulnerability to the troubled politics of the lands they rule. When we reach the limits of military power and diplomacy to contain the dangers of that cauldron of burning resentments and extremism, energy security is our best defense. We won't achieve it tomorrow, but we must achieve it in our time.

The strategy I propose won't be another grab bag of handouts to this or that industry and a full employment act for lobbyists. It will promote the diversification and conservation of our energy sources that will in sufficient time break the dominance of oil in our transportation sector just as we diversified away from oil use in electric power generation thirty years ago; and substantially reduce the impact of our energy consumption on the planet. It will rely on the genius and technological prowess of American industry and science. Government must set achievable goals, but the markets should be free to produce the means. And those means are within our reach."
Which would be fine, if he ever followed up on it.

The real issue is one of priorities. We know roughly what a McCain energy policy would look like; Cutting most subsidies for renewables. A cap-and-trade with a higher cap, most of the permits given away, and unlimited use of carbon offsets (a problem). Subsidies for coal and nuclear power for new plants. Disdain for new regulation. Opposing new drilling in ANWR. Higher CAFE standards. We can expect this from things he's said in town halls or speeches and his voting record in the senate.

But when he says things like "Of course we're all for the wind and solar and tide There's no living American who isn't in favor of that. I'm in favor of that." he shouldn't get a free pass. He doesn't explain how you can promote more renewable energy without restructuring regulation with measures like revenue decoupling and enforced net metering, or without investing in basic and applied research in our nations labs and universities, or without providing either production or investment tax credits.

The fact that there is no coherent policy platform, much less one readily accessible to the public, can mean only that he doesn't prioritize the problem. That's the point about the McCain Energy Policy Watch. Voters can't hold a candidate responsible for a plan that's never offered. I would love to see McCain adopt all or most of Obama's plan, and let them fight out the election over other issues. Renewable energy and our energy problems shouldn't be a partisan football. But as long as one party isn't serious about them, then they will be.

Until McCain actually puts forward an energy plan, we'll keep counting.

The McCain Energy Policy Introduction.
Day 385: Cap-and-trade.
Day 410: Revenue decoupling.

Click "There's more..." for the full post.