Last week’s presidential debate had a foreign-policy focus, but two upcoming debates — one with a town-hall format on October 7, and a more formal event with a focus on domestic and economic issues on October 15 — will likely address environmental topics and how they impact jobs, climate change, and our national priorities.
At the town hall debate at Belmont University in Tennessee, moderator Tom Brokaw will ask Barack Obama and John McCain questions from the audience and from the Internet (submit your queries at myspace.com/mydebates). I’m thinking about submitting a green question, so I’ve been looking closely at each of the candidates’ stances on various environmental issues.
Take the question of “CLEAN COAL,” which author and Appalachia expert Jeff Biggers described thusly in The Washington Post in March: “Never was there an oxymoron more insidious, or more dangerous to our public health.”
The term refers to various processes that supposedly negate coal burning’s egregious environmental effects by “scrubbing,” liquefying, or gasifying its polluting by-products (namely, carbon). But aside from very real concerns about how effective that technology actually is, large-scale clean coal infrastructure (including how to store the sequestered carbon) is at least a decade away. When it comes to climate-change solutions, clean coal is more band-aid than visionary. Still, both Obama and McCain have publicly stated their support of clean coal projects — McCain to the tune of $2 billion per year, Obama only if they emit 20 percent less carbon than traditional methods.
However, Obama proposes investing more than seven times that much ($150 billion over 10 years) into other RENEWABLE ENERGY sources and efficiency measures — which he hopes will translate into five million “green-collar” jobs, and 25 percent of US electricity coming from renewables by 2025.
McCain supports renewables as well, but hasn’t proposed any substantive public financial investment in their production. (The only alternative fuel that McCain specifically targets for government support is NUCLEAR ENERGY. Obama is open to discussing nuclear, but doesn’t support it outright.)
Of course, even the most robust push for renewable energy must be accompanied by a strategy to deal with existing polluters. To that end, both Obama and McCain support a CAP-AND-TRADE SYSTEM that would issue “emissions permits” to companies; no company could exceed the amount of greenhouse gases outlined in its permits, and if it had extras, that company could trade (i.e., sell) its permits to a higher-polluting entity. Over time, the number of permits issued, and therefore emissions, would drop. The candidates disagree on the specifics, however: Obama wants an 80 percent emissions reduction by 2050, while McCain aims for just 65 percent. Plus, McCain wants to give the emissions permits away for free (at first, at least), while Obama wants the federal government to auction them off and make polluters pay from the get-go.
McCain’s stance on FUEL-ECONOMY STANDARDS is similarly anemic. He says he supports increasing cars’ CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards, but doesn’t say by how much. Obama offers a concrete goal: to raise the standards by four percent every year he’s in office (in eight years, we’d go from 27.5 miles per gallon to 37.6 mpg).
It’s easy to see that on the hot-button environmental issues, Obama offers more concrete financing ideas and measurable goals. (Although his turnabout on OFFSHORE OIL DRILLING — which he’d previously opposed, but now says could be part of a comprehensive energy strategy — gave eco-organizations a start at the end of last month.) And his commitment to public investment is about more than money — it’s also about manpower, and national morals. But the clean coal thing is stuck in my craw. So here is my question:
Senator Obama, how is it possible to encourage speedy development of clean-coal technology without tacitly encouraging continued reliance on traditional fossil fuels?
Deirdre Fulton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.