As a dyed-in-the-hemp environmentalist, much of my opinion about politicians depends on their energy policies. I had little hope that either John McCain or Barack Obama would be as forward thinking as Jimmy Carter was when he put solar panels on the White House, but when I watched the town hall debate last week I sunk into a crushing depression—both offered energy plans that were trite and fundamentally ignorant about or unconcerned with environmental consequences. And since the issue is so rarely talked about except in terms of gasoline prices, an analysis of the flaws of both plans is long overdue.
First, there is the call to increase domestic oil production. Both Obama and McCain have come out in support of increased offshore drilling. Aside from the fact that offshore drilling won’t appreciably decrease energy costs, oilrigs pose a significant environmental risk. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita damaged several platforms and seabed pipes, spilling over 714,000 gallons of oil—seven times what the U.S. Coast Guard considers a “major” spill. Moreover, spending money on drilling takes away funds from alternative energy research and production.
Senator Obama has particularly raised my ire by proposing to eliminate “any infrastructure obstacles/shortages or possible federal permitting process delays to drilling in the … National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska [NPR-A].” Drilling in a petroleum reserve sounds reasonable, but the NPR-A has spent the last 85 years untouched by humans, and is more ecologically sensitive, unique, and important than Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Drilling there would be akin to drilling in the Galapagos or the Great Barrier Reef.
Then there is clean-coal. Or rather, there isn’t clean coal—both candidates have endorsed (McCain more enthusiastically than Obama) a non-existent technology. Clean coal, as it is conceived, involves capturing the carbon dioxide emitted by traditional coal plants, and then storing it underground. Assuming that such technology will ever actually exist, we would have to deal with eternal, leak-proof storage (which many scientists say is impossible); the environmental impact of mining coal, which is often done by simply removing mountain tops and the ten-or-more-year wait for the technology. Not to mention the fact that investing in a decidedly questionable technology eats into funding for more proved technologies like solar and geothermal energies.
Since both candidates support such atrocious ideas as domestic drilling and the fairy tale of clean coal, the only way to make a decision about the relative merits of their energy plans is to judge them on the completeness of their plans and the likelihood that they will follow through with promises of support for truly green energy like solar, geothermal, and wind. This is where a clear difference arises. Rather than investing directly, McCain wishes to merely expand already existing tax breaks—a plan that will never result in the massive and immediate switch to carbon neutral energy we need. Moreover, the selection of a vice presidential candidate who was previously known outside her state only for her support for unrestrained oil exploration and who elicits chants of “drill, baby, drill” undercuts his claim to environmental realism.
Obama, on the other hand, has a plan that is salvageable because it rests on a foundation of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. He also appears to grasp the fact that, since a transition to a carbon-free economy virtually mandates nuclear power, we need a safe place to store it—unlike McCain, who has supported making earthquake-prone Yucca Mountain a waste dump. Neither candidate is green, but at least Obama’s energy plan stands a chance of working.