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

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.

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.

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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.

Converting the nation's coal reserves to liquid motor fuel is another key departure from Democrats' positions. Mr. Romney, Mr. Giuliani, and Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado all support coal-to-liquid, or CTL, development. Other GOP candidates have no articulated position on CTL, the League of Conservation Voters reports.

Most Democrats don't support liquefied coal, although Senators Clinton and Obama have left the door open, saying they might support the technology if it can be made to produce fewer carbon emissions than does gasoline. Republicans (except McCain) and Democrats, facing tough caucuses in the corn-growing state of Iowa, favor ethanol subsidies.

Most Republicans support expansion of nuclear power. Most Democrats do not. But Clinton and Obama have indicated that they are open to more nuclear power to help the global-warming problem if waste disposal and proliferation problems can be solved.

Climate change

With rising public concern over global warming and fossil-fuel burning, many candidates' energy plans zero in on this issue.

Mr. Edwards, who favors cutting US carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, this spring was the first to unveil an energy plan. Clinton weighed in this fall with a detailed plan for similar carbon cuts. But New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is even more aggressive in his timelines and goals, pushing for 90 percent carbon reductions by 2050, Mr. Karpinski says.

While several Republican candidates have said in speeches that global warming is real, most oppose any mandatory emissions cuts or have no stated position. Notable exceptions are Huckabee, who supports in principle a mandatory emissions cap, and McCain, who strongly supports a mandatory cap and was the first to cosponsor emissions-cap legislation.

"While there are meaningful differences among Democrats' plans, all acknowledge climate change as a major challenge and say quick action is needed," says Julia Bovey, who analyzes candidate positions for the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, the political arm of the NRDC. "The Republican field is a far more mixed bag."

Renewable electricity and efficiency

Shifting electric utilities away from coal and toward renewable fuels like wind and biomass so it is increasing efficiency of electricity use instead of building more power plants is a major goal of most Democratic candidates. Most Republicans oppose such a requirement for renewable sources on the grid, though some have not stated a position.

While most Democrats favor a federal mandate to require that 20 to 25 percent of US electricity come from renewable sources by 2025, Governor Richardson has set a 30 percent target by 2020 and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio wants that much or more.

Finally, there's the question of the depth of commitment to a new national energy policy. At the first major forum on it earlier last month in Los Angeles, only three candidates showed up - all Democrats.

"We invited all the candidates to come. [We] really wanted them all there," the NRDC's Ms. Bovey says. "But only Clinton, Kucinich, and Edwards came."

Even so, candidates are focusing more on energy this time than ever before, say many.

"Energy has become a symbol of lack of US competitiveness, innovation, and even our geopolitical standing," says Paul Bledsoe, strategy director at the National Commission on Energy Policy. "So that's why candidates are talking about it. It's not just about energy; it's about American standing in the world."

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