Friday, January 18, 2008

Candidates & Energy: McCain

As I continue to evaluate the positions of the presidential candidates on energy and the environment, I'm finding the process quite different than in past elections. Access to video resources on the web, and in particular on, makes it much easier to get a feel for the candidates that goes beyond their published positions and televised speeches. That's as true of a veteran campaigner like Senator John McCain (R-AZ) as for relative newcomers such as Messrs. Obama and Huckabee. Since I'm tackling them more or less in the order in which they won primaries, and alternating between the parties, it's now Senator McCain's turn. Like many other candidates, he favors strong measures to increase our energy independence, but his focus on climate change as an organizing principle for energy policy, rather than just another issue, differentiates him from the entire Republican field.

It's a good thing that Youtube and Google convey ample information on Senator McCain's views about energy and the environment, because his campaign website is a bit sparse on both topics, particularly compared to the level of detail provided by Senator Obama. From his comments in various speeches, town halls, and small events, it's clear that he is very concerned about our dependence on foreign oil, on both economic and national security grounds. He emphasizes the instability or governmental hostility of many of the countries from which our imports flow, frequently citing Nigeria, Venezuela and Russia as examples. I wasn't surprised to see him make the "funding both sides of the War on Terror" argument in the principal energy policy document on his website. National security is Senator McCain's strong suit, and he places energy squarely within this context.

The measures he proposes for improving energy security cover the same themes as many other candidates, including wind and solar power, higher fuel economy standards, electrification of transportation via plug-in hybrids and batteries, and biofuels. He also strongly supports nuclear power, based on its low greenhouse gas emissions. Surprisingly, given the intensity of his views on energy independence--which seem to include an unrealistic expectation of how soon it could be achieved--he would leave offshore drilling to the discretion of the nearest affected states, and he opposes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I think he is missing a bet, there, but it's consistent with the theme of environmental stewardship that runs through the whole McCain campaign.

Climate change is a major element of that theme, and of the Senator's legislative agenda. He has criticized the Bush administration's approach to global warming, and together with Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) he sponsored a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade bill that was the precursor of the Warner-Lieberman bill currently under consideration in the Senate. It's not hard to find video clips of the Senator talking about climate change and the inter-generational responsibility he feels in this regard. (I look forward to reviewing Governor Romney's position on this issue, since the Romney campaign has labeled Senator McCain's approach to climate change as "radical" and "wrong-headed.")

Ethanol is one aspect of energy policy on which McCain differs with many of his rivals. You have to admire someone who campaigns seriously in Iowa on a platform of ending subsidies for corn ethanol, and in Michigan on higher fuel economy standards. Still, when confronted with the charge that he has "flip-flopped" on this issue--that he was entirely against ethanol previously but now only opposes subsidies for it--his response was somewhat less convincing than it might have been. In any case, his aversion to subsidies is apparently not confined to ethanol, extending beyond energy to agricultural commodities, consistent with his overall emphasis on free markets and fiscal conservatism. He expects alternative energy to advance on a "level playing field"--leveled further by monetizing the climate externality via market-based mechanisms.

For someone whose candidacy was written off not long ago, Senator McCain appears to have as good a chance of capturing his party's nomination in this wide-open contest as any of his competitors. With former Senator Thompson, he also represents the last shot at the White House for his generation, which experienced World War II as children and came of age in the 1950s, but has yet to produce a President. Although he occupies the Senate seat formerly held by Barry Goldwater, John McCain's ideas on energy and the environment are up-to-date and would not be out of place among this year's Democratic candidates--with the possible exception of his unwavering support for nuclear power. His proposals reflect both change and experience. My long-time readers would be forgiven for noting a high degree of overlap between many of Senator McCain's positions on energy security and climate change and the themes that I've been writing about here for four years. That shouldn't be construed as an endorsement, however.

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