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Energy and climate change: Whoever wins will face big challenges

John McCain and Barack Obama both say they want to end U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Both say climate change is a problem, and they support a cap-and-trade approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

On the campaign trail, the candidates play up their differences on energy. McCain calls for building nuclear power plants and expanding domestic oil production. Obama says he will invest $150 billion over 10 years to develop clean energy and "create five million new green jobs."

But in their policy statements, Obama supports more nukes and more drilling, and McCain touts clean cars and wind and solar power.

"They're more striking for their similarities than their differences," said Ken Richards, an associate professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington. "It will come down to who is more skillful at shepherding legislation through Congress."


SPEA professor Ken Richards helps plant trees for the creation of a carbon grove honoring former EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus.

Print-Quality Photo

Richards, an economist and an expert on climate change and environmental policy, said circumstances will complicate efforts by policy makers to address climate change.

Heightened awareness of the issue has put pressure on the U.S. to act, especially after eight years in which the Bush administration was blamed for foot-dragging. Rising energy prices, notably for gasoline but also for natural gas and coal, create their own sense of urgency. But the current financial crisis could make the problem hard to tackle.

"This is really a perfect storm," Richards said.

McCain and Obama have long been on record as supporting a cap-and-trade system, in which total emissions of greenhouse gases (primarily carbon dioxide) are restricted and companies that can't stay within the caps can trade for credits with those that create less pollution.

McCain says his plan would reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 60 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Obama is more ambitious; his plan would cut emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, the reduction recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Obama also says he will auction 100 percent of pollution credits rather than allocating them based on past levels. That's a good idea, said Richards, who has done careful analysis of Senate cap-and-trade bills. But it's a bad idea, he said, to use revenue from the auction to offset energy price increases.

"The whole point of cap-and-trade is to give people a price signal about their activities," he said.

Richards said implementing meaningful climate-change legislation that encourages conservation and discourages pollution will cost money. "It's actually going to be a fundamental change in our economy," he said. "I'm guessing it's really going to be hard, unless something happens on the economic front."

Also a challenge, Richards said, is the candidates' call for U.S. energy independence.

"It's a noble goal. It's also an incredibly hard one," he said.

McCain's Lexington Project, evoking the U.S. War of Independence, calls for dramatically increasing domestic oil and gas production, building 100 nuclear plants and investing in alternative fuels. "In a world of hostile and unstable suppliers of oil, this nation will achieve strategic independence by 2025," he says.

Obama says dependence on oil is "one of the greatest (challenges) we have ever faced." He proposes a massive investment in clean and renewable energy, conservation and plug-in hybrid cars and a conversion of factories to "clean technology leaders." He supports "responsible" domestic oil and gas production, and more nuclear plants but with attention to waste disposal.

Both candidates want more investment in clean-coal technology, a potential boon for Indiana but a cost and technology challenge, especially when it comes to capturing and storing the climate-changing carbon dioxide produced by burning coal.

"Our single largest energy supply is coal," Richards said. "It also is the dirtiest."

While nuclear plants or wind-power facilities may produce less pollution, Richards said, they will produce a need for costly new infrastructure for transmitting and distributing energy. And there also will be personnel challenges: A generation of utility engineers has retired since base-load power plants were last built in the Midwest.

"I don't really hear the candidates saying, 'Frankly, this is what it will cost to have a clean environment,'" Richards said.