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The candidates on energy: hot topic, diverse views

As gasoline prices rise, voters and US presidential candidates look at how to handle energy.

By Staff writer / December 3, 2007

With gasoline at more than $3 a gallon, energy has emerged as a top issue in the presidential campaign for the first time since the 1970s, with all major presidential candidates including it in their stump speeches.

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Not just gasoline prices, but global warming, the Iraq war, and hurricane Katrina have combined to put secure and renewable energy – along with healthcare and the economy – near the top of voter and candidate priorities this election season.

While all candidates speak of the urgency of unhooking America from imported oil, of developing new energy technologies, and of feeling voters' pain at the pump, their plans for dealing with the problem vary from the detailed to little detail at all.

That leaves energy-security hawks like Dr. Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington, wanting more from both parties.

parties. Democrats' plans don't mandate the flex-fuel vehicles he deems necessary, and he says Republicans' plans need more detail.

"Democrats have some very specific agendas that you can argue about whether they are good enough," Mr. Luft says. "But with key exceptions, Republicans have not offered very many details at all about their energy security plans. There's not much meat on the bones."

Some environmentalists, however, are encouraged that energy plans are finally emerging from both parties' candidates.

"The good news is that all of the leading Democrats now have put forward comprehensive aggressive plans to deal with the twin challenges of energy security and global warming," says Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, a nonpartisan environmental group. "On the Republican side, the most aggressive energy candidate by far is Sen. [John] McCain - and [former Gov. Mike] Huckabee has expressed support for solving these related problems, too."

Alternatives to oil

Broadly speaking, Democrats' energy security plans focus on curbing oil imports through tougher auto mileage requirements - achieving fleet averages of 35 to 50 miles per gallon over the next 10 to 15 year. Those goals are far tougher than the ones now being considered in Congress.

Front-runners Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama have each unveiled detailed energy policies focused largely on slowing global warming, cutting fossil-fuel use, and promoting renewables. All favor developing cellulosic ethanol technology and plug-in hybrid cars that get more than 100 m.p.g. All their plans are more aggressive than those in the energy bill expected to see a vote this week in Congress.

Overall, the Democrats' plans are focused on cap-and-trade programs aimed at slashing carbon emissions and on efforts to stop global warming.

Republican candidates, by contrast, have generally opposed government mandates for higher mileage for autos. Exceptions include Mr. Huckabee, who supports a 35-m.p.g. fleet standard by 2020, and Senator McCain, who supports plug-in hybrids and a higher mileage standard but has not specified targets.

Republican candidates' energy security focuses on boosting energy production and developing new technology, such as cellulosic ethanol. Some, including former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, support expanding oil reserves by drilling for oil in sensitive areas like the continental shelf and Alaska's wilderness.