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On the Issues: Powered forward

Candidates are talking about America's energy future, but no easy answer appear within reach

POSTED: December 14, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain speaks to reporters in August after touring the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Plant in Newport, Mich.

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During this presidential election season, the candidates have been talking a lot about the best ways to fuel our cars and power our homes.

"I don't recall an election where energy policy was discussed this much," said John Duffield, a professor of political science at Georgia State University.

The obvious reason is gas prices, which soared above $4 for much of this year before dropping in recent weeks. But Duffield said voters are also concerned about the environmental effect of carbon emissions and about how our dependence on oil threatens national security.

Republican candidate John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama have each called for a menu of options, rather than relying too heavily on a single source of energy.

"Both candidates are basically saying we need a shotgun approach," said Duffield.

Both have promoted expansion of alternative forms of energy, such as solar, wind, geothermal and biofuels, as well as new twists on existing sources, such as "clean" coal.

But they differ in how they would achieve those goals. Obama would use tax credits and other incentives, while the McCain campaign has pledged to "eliminate mandates, subsidies and price supports to encourage market-based solutions."

Gainesville resident Bill Morris sees some merit to both approaches. "I think government should provide incentives, but I'm not in favor of big government," he said.

Morris does wholeheartedly approve of McCain's proposal to expand drilling for oil.

"Obviously, we need to get to drilling, wherever we know it's available to us," he said. "We have this revenue sitting right under our feet and we're not using it. What are we thinking? We need to stop sending billions of dollars overseas and use our own resources."

But Duffield said it's a myth that America can become self-sufficient in terms of petroleum.

"I think both (candidates) are mischaracterizing the problem by saying that we need to reduce our dependence on oil from the Middle East and Venezuela," he said. "Oil is a single market. You can't segment it. The real issue isn't where it comes from, it's how much we consume."

Duffield thinks the government should take an active role in reducing the demand for oil, whether it's by providing tax credits for buyers of hybrid cars (a popular idea) or raising gasoline taxes (decidedly unpopular).

Both presidential candidates have said they want to address the problem of global warming, so Duffield is hopeful that no matter who is elected, there will be some policy changes.

"Unfortunately, this is coming at a bad time because of the downturn in the economy and the need for short-term relief," he said. "But even with the economic situation, I think government does need to make the initial investment."

Even diehard environmentalists acknowledge that switching to alternative sources of energy is going to cost more in the short run.

But Patty Durand, director of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club, argues that the federal government already subsidizes existing sources of energy, including ethanol and nuclear power. She'd like to see subsidies withdrawn from wasteful or polluting forms of energy and instead applied to cleaner sources.

"Make it a level playing field," she said. "Incentivize in the direction we want to go."

Durand said the Sierra Club's top priority is energy efficiency. "That is the brightest star in the universe in terms of saving money," she said. "Georgia is ranked 38th in the country in energy efficiency spending."

After reducing demand for energy, Durand said, the Sierra Club wants to focus on the cleanest forms of power.

"Solar and wind are the next two biggest opportunities, as well as biofuels," she said. "But those (technologies) are all still in the pipeline and need more incentives."

To those who argue that solar and wind energy are too costly, Durand responds that if the money spent on coal and nuclear subsidies was instead invested in wind and solar power, Georgia would not need to build any new power plants.

Nuclear power, she said, has never made economic sense. "Nuclear is not competitive. It's extremely expensive."

Many policymakers are taking a second look at nuclear energy now, because it doesn't produce the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.

Dan Cronin, spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the group is not opposed to nuclear power.

"But there are issues that would have to be addressed," he said.

And those issues are troubling. No one has yet come up with failsafe method to dispose of the radioactive waste. And the nuclear industry creates material that could fall into the hands of terrorists and be used to make weapons, threatening national security.

Anna Aurilio, a lobbyist for Environment Georgia, said the costs and hazards of nuclear power make it a deal-breaker.

"If you ask, ‘What's the quickest, cheapest and cleanest way to meet our future energy needs?'" she said, "nuclear fails on all three counts."

Both Obama and McCain have touted the promise of "clean" coal, a process which theoretically would capture the carbon emissions from coal-fired plants and sequester the pollution by injecting it underground.

But the technology to do this doesn't really exist yet. And Durand said people need to look at the entire life cycle of coal, not just at how much pollution is emitted by power plants.

"Getting (coal) out of the ground is still incredibly harmful to the environment," she said, recalling Appalachian mountains that have been stripped bare by mining. "I think ‘clean coal' is an oxymoron."

But Jill Johnson, political director for Georgia Conservation Voters, said coal, nuclear power and natural gas will all be needed for the foreseeable future, to support the area's growing population.

"I don't think we can phase them out," she said.

But she said wind, solar and other renewable sources should be phased in as quickly as possible.

"I think people are beginning to understand that we need a diverse mix of energy sources," she said.

Cronin agrees. "There's not one magic bullet," he said. "Transitioning from fossil fuels is a process. It's not going to happen tomorrow. But making investments now can help jump-start the economy and create new jobs in the future."

Durand is optimistic, because for the first time she's hearing both the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates talk about fighting global warming.

"I think we're on the cusp of a revolution," she said.


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