The Science Vote: Linking energy to greenhouse risks

Science and technology have not played out as major presidential campaign issues this year. And following Sen. John McCain’s unexpected announcement that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would be his running mate, even foreign policy and major energy issues have been relegated to the back seat as the media feverishly probe the views, background and administrative history of Palin — a newcomer on the national scene.

But B.P. — before Palin — a diverse body of video clips, Internet-posted position statements and campaign remarks by McCain and Sen. Barack Obama had already emerged, and some did touch on S&T issues. Most focused on energy or the climate and shared common themes.

For instance, both candidates have described an urgent need to wean Americans from fossil fuels. An escalating risk of catastrophic climate change is one reason, but hardly the only one, the candidates give for their concern.

“Climate change is real,” McCain said at the Clean Cities Congress in Phoenix as early as May 2006. “While there are still a few skeptics of climate change, the evidence supporting the causes of rising global temperatures as human-induced is overwhelming.” Acknowledging that skeptics remain, he argued that “almost any credible organization will tell you that the evidence is growing and becoming clearer every day, despite the reluctance of the [Bush] administration to do anything meaningful about climate change.”

Obama also contends on his website that the nation faces major challenges from global climate change and from a dependence on foreign oil, “both of which stem from our current dependence on fossil fuels for energy.” As such, “we have a moral, environmental, economic and security imperative to address our dependence on foreign oil and tackle climate change in a serious, sustainable manner.”

It’s how each candidate would manage these problems that differs.

Both claim they would lower the nation’s carbon footprint by shrinking reliance on oil. Explained McCain: “We face the reality that oil supplies will fall in this century.… Growing demand [for oil] and limited supplies mean one thing: higher prices. And that’s particularly so for oil, which accounts for about half of gasoline’s price at the pump.” Last year, he said that “the answer to high gas prices cannot be to produce more oil.… Gas prices are nothing less than a call to action to wean ourselves off of oil.”

As those prices bumped up dramatically this year, McCain modified his stance. He now enthusiastically backs new drilling at offshore U.S. sites, especially in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.

Obama’s energy strategy also calls for cutting oil use within the next decade. In his case, it would be by an amount that exceeds what the United States now imports from the Middle East and Venezuela — some 3.7 million barrels per day.

Although he has not been much of a proponent of oil drilling as a route to energy independence, Obama applauded an August 1 proposal floated by a bipartisan coalition of Senate colleagues, the “Gang of 10.” That group wants to dramatically increase oil drilling off U.S. coasts, he noted, and “would repeal tax breaks for oil companies so that we can invest billions in fuel-efficient cars, help our automakers retool and make a genuine commitment to renewable sources of energy like wind power, solar power and the next generation of clean, affordable biofuels.”

No amount of drilling will sate America’s escalating appetite for electricity. McCain would end what has essentially been a roughly 30-year moratorium on utilities’ purchases of new nuclear plants. “Nuclear power is a key technology for addressing climate change,” he said at the Clean Cities Congress. “We simply cannot ignore this emissions-free technology.”

Obama’s proposed energy policy, unveiled in an August 4 speech, similarly argues that “it is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power as an option.” However, he argues, before pushing for greater reliance on this source, “key issues must be addressed including: security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage and proliferation.” He has already introduced legislation proposing new guidelines to track, control and account for used fuel from commercial power plants. And if he had his way, Obama would scrap long-standing plans to make Nevada’s YuccaMountain the nation’s storage depot for high-level nuclear-waste. 

In addition, Obama would invest in advanced automotive vehicles — and push for deployment, during the next eight years, of a million plug-in hybrids that get more than 150 miles per gallon in short-haul driving. Half of Uncle Sam’s auto purchases by 2012 would have to be plug-in hybrids or fully electric vehicles. And as a carrot to consumers, Obama’s administration would propose a tax credit of $7,000 for purchasing such advanced-tech vehicles.

Within four years, under his plan, renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal should grow to power 10 percent of U.S. electricity — up from roughly 4.1 percent today. Obama would also instruct the Department of Energy to enter into public-private partnerships for the development of five “first-of-a-kind” commercial-scale, coal-fired power plants that pioneer new technologies for carbon capture and sequestration, and mandate that all new vehicles by 2012 be able to flexibly switch between gasoline and blends containing biofuels.

Finally, Obama said during his energy speech that he would increase automotive fuel efficiency standards 4 percent annually. This alone, the Obama campaign says, “would save nearly a half trillion gallons of gasoline and 6 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases.” McCain, by contrast, has argued against mandatory increases in automotive fuel-efficiency standards.

At an April 11 briefing in Washington, D.C., McCain adviser R. James Woolsey noted that his candidate is considering a carbon dioxide reduction package that would also focus on developing plug-in hybrids, mandating flex-fueled vehicles and helping automakers retool their vehicles to weigh less and guzzle fewer gallons per mile.

Woolsey, CIA director under President Bill Clinton, noted that his candidate’s energy policy remains a bit vague on details because McCain wants the government “to have a general direction — such as away from carbon, which he strongly promoted, or away from old wasteful subsidies — but not get into the business of picking winners.” That is, not specifying which technologies to back.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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