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Presidential Candidates: How Green Are They?

Augury -- whether art, science or gift -- can't be an easy path to follow. If the plague of locusts you predict for next week doesn't turn up, your credibility is going to take a big hit; conversely, if your prophesies target events so far into the future that you'll be dead and gone long before they fail to materialize, then you can't exactly establish a track record while you're living. And as stock analysts and tipsters know all too well, you're only as good as your last pick.

On the energy and environmental front, however, anyone following the presidential primaries today can make some fairly safe predictions about our sustainable future without even picking a winner from the thirteen major candidates. In its 2008 Voters' Guide, the League of Conservation Voters compares the energy policies of all the presidential hopefuls. The League doesn't over-editorialize, but it's clear from even an unbiased reading of their positions that the country will go in a diametrically different direction in 2009 depending largely on the party of the 44th president.

To compare the competing Democrats, one would think they were vying to establish which of them is the greenest one of all. And while this could be construed as oneupmanship at this point in the race, it's also a good indication of how seriously each candidate takes ‘green' issues. They have all published detailed, thoughtful plans on how they would deal with the issues of energy independence and climate change, and what's most encouraging about them is the extent to which they see the twin issues as interdependent. Here's a simplified summary of their positions:

Issues

Clinton

Edwards

Kucinich

Obama

Richardson

Mandatory cap and auction of pollution permits

 

Supports, with 100% auction

Supports, with 100% auction

Supports cap

Supports, with 100% auction

Supports, with 100% auction

Carbon emission reduction

Supports 80% reduction by 2050

Supports ≥80% reduction by 2050

Supports 80% reduction by 2050

Supports 80% reduction by 2050

Supports 90% reduction by 2050

Fleetwide fuel efficiency

40 mpg by 2020, 55 mpg by 2030

40 mpg by 2016

40-45 mpg by 2017

52 mpg by 2026

50 mpg by 2020

National renewable electricity standard

25% by 2025

25% by 2025

30-40% by 2020

25% by 2025

30% by 2020, 50% by 2040

Energy efficiency improve-
ments

20% by 2020

15% by 2018

10% by 2020

50% by 2030

20% by 2020

Emissions from coal plants

Supports phased-in carbon capture
in new plants

Opposes new plants without carbon capture

Supports phaseout of all coal power & mining

Would consider banning new plants

Would impose strict emissions limits on new plants

Liquid coal development

Supportive if carbon pollution reduced by 20%

Opposed

Opposed

Supportive if carbon pollution reduced by 20%

Opposed

Source: League of Conservation Voters

 

For the most part, Republicans also talk up a storm on energy independence, but somehow miss the connection to climate change mitigation. This leads them to interpret our energy future mostly in terms of new nuclear power plants, old coal, clean coal, liquid coal and business-as-usual in Detroit and the oil states. Examining their positions on the same seven issues listed above, we see a wider spectrum of responses, ranging from mildly supportive to insouciant to frighteningly hostile:

Issues

Giuliani

Huckabee

McCain

Paul

Romney

Thompson

Mandatory cap and auction of pollution permits

Opposed

Supports, with no position on auction

Supports, with no position on auction

No stated position

Supports cap if enacted globally

No stated position

Carbon emission reduction

No stated position

No target specified

Supports 65% reduction by 2050

No stated position

No stated position

No stated position

Fleetwide
fuel
efficiency

Opposes mandatory action

35 mpg by 2020

General support, no targets

Opposed 33 mpg in 2005

Opposes as stand-alone measure

Opposed 35 mpg in 2002

National renewable electricity standard

Opposed

Supports 15% by 2020 (inc. nuclear & clean coal)

Supports state & local, not national, standards

No stated position

No stated position

Opposed 10% & 20% standard in 2002

Energy efficiency improve-
ments

General support, no targets

General support, no targets

General support, no targets

No stated position

General support, no targets

General support, no targets

Emissions from coal plants

Supports conventional coal

Supports conventional coal

Supports carbon capture
in new plants

Supports conventional coal

Supports conventional coal

Supports conventional coal

Liquid coal development

Supports liquid coal

No stated position

Will support liquid coal if pollution capture/control improves

No stated position

Supports liquid coal

Supports liquid coal

Source: League of Conservation Voters

 

As can be seen, Governor Huckabee and Senator McCain lift themselves somewhat above their competitors with support for fuel efficiency and carbon emission limits, but with these exceptions noted, the Republican candidates seem to be sharing a generally reactionary platform. Candidate Ron Paul's position on energy is perhaps scarier than most, as he does not appear to have given much thought to the seven major issues measured; on fuel efficiency and coal plants he has shown himself no friend to clean energy or the environment, while on the other five issues he hasn't recorded any position whatsoever. Giuliani's and Thompson's records show opposition to virtually everything beneficial to the environment, and support for continued use of coal in any form. And the campaign promise of the former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, to bring large-scale clean energy technology to market, clashes with his public opposition to the nation's largest proposed offshore wind project off the coast of the Bay State.

Overall, the impression given by the campaign literature of GOP hopefuls is that the energy/environmental debate has not been worthy of serious thought, nor has it featured in their spoken rhetoric as much as immigration, health care or the Iraq war. Compared with some of the Democratic candidates' meticulously crafted plans with their targets, price tags and deadlines, the Republican contenders seem to be paying lip service to an issue they know does not excite the general public. And so far as government support for clean energies such as solar is concerned, most of them mention it only as afterthoughts to ideas for increased use of coal, drilling in the ANWR and building more nuclear plants, measures that may offset some fossil fuel imports but will exacerbate environmental problems already approaching crisis levels.

So in this exercise in crystal ball gazing, you could probably get just as accurate a result with a two-dollar snow globe. With Huckabee and McCain, and to a greater extent with the six Democrats, there is a sense of recognition of the comparative importance of the energy issue. It's the recognition that whereas we can survive not finding a perfect solution to some of the more emotionally charged issues in politics today, we can't survive a failure to address effectively — and on a national scale — the interrelated issues of energy and environment. It's also difficult to escape the conclusion that, in the event of a candidate in the mold of Giuliani, Paul, Romney or Thompson being sworn in next January, the brotherly relationship between the oil & gas industry and Government that characterized the Bush administration will become, if anything, measurably cozier.

Chris Stimpson is the executive campaigner and activist for the Solar Nation advocacy group solar-nation.org. Solar Nation is the nationwide campaign where citizens rally and convince their leaders to make America a true Solar Power. As the locus of grassroots American activism in support of legislation and regulation of solar energy issues, Solar Nation seeks to positively affect state and federal policy, enabling solar power to become a significant part of America's energy future. Visit or join Solar Nation at www.solar-nation.org.

 

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