Next president to face tough energy choices

WASHINGTON — No matter who moves into the White House in January, energy problems will hit him with the punch of a winter storm.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain and his Democratic rival, Barack Obama, agree that the era of cheap energy and abundant supplies is over. Both have called for breaking away from the nation’s overwhelming oil dependency while dueling bitterly over how to do it. Neither has suggested heavy-handed government intervention such as price controls imposed in response to the 1970s oil crisis.

Their broader visions of where U.S. energy policy should go in the long run are strikingly similar, but they would take some different routes to get there.

Obama would take a decade to wean the nation off its reliance on oil from the Middle East and Venezuela. McCain, dubbing his energy agenda the “Lexington Project” — after the Massachusetts town where America’s war for independence from Britain began 233 years ago — says his goal is to achieve “energy independence” by 2025.

But the next president is likely to face more immediate concerns.

Atop high gasoline prices, Americans will be getting huge winter heating bills just as he settles in.

Faced with public unrest over soaring energy costs, President Bush once said he wished he had a magic wand to provide relief. The next president may wish that, too, in his first 100 days in office.

Obama says he’s ready to turn to the federal Strategic Petroleum Reserve and make available as much as 70 million barrels of the government’s emergency oil — one of the few options he would have at hand under executive order and could move rapidly.

Barring a supply emergency, McCain can be expected to reject such action. His campaign dismissed the idea of tapping the reserve as a political ploy. “The strategic oil reserve exists for America’s national security strategy, not Barack Obama’s election strategy,” snapped McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds.

As for short-term response, McCain has proposed little except for suggesting suspension of the 18-cent a gallon federal gasoline tax. The “tax holiday” was panned widely as a gimmick. Even McCain’s allies in Congress showed little interest.

Oil companies might be wary in the first 100 days of an Obama presidency.

Obama wants oil companies to come up with the money for helping people pay their winter heating bills and defray high gasoline costs. He has called for a windfall profits tax on the five largest oil companies, using the money to give Americans up to a $1,000 “emergency energy rebate.”

Such a tax would have to be enacted by Congress, and would likely unleash another partisan storm on Capitol Hill.

Don’t expect anything like that from a McCain White House. Echoing Bush and many Republicans in Congress, McCain denounced new oil industry taxes, arguing they would hinder investment, exploration and domestic oil production.

New domestic oil and gas production has been the mantra of the McCain and congressional Republican energy agenda. He has called repeatedly for lifting the drilling bans covering the federal Outer Continental Shelf off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the eastern Gulf of Mexico for the past 27 years.

The debate over offshore drilling is not expected to subside in the first months of the next presidency — no matter who sits in the White House.

Responding to a shift that high gasoline prices has produced in the public’s attitude about domestic energy production, Obama has reversed course and now says he could support a limited lifting of the offshore drilling moratoria, but only in some areas and as part of an array of other energy programs.

Lifting the offshore drilling bans, even if accomplished early in a McCain presidency, would not produce any oil for five to seven years. Yet some of Obama’s major energy initiatives could be just as elusive and equally long-range.

Obama, for example, wants a $150 billion, decade-long program to spur the commercial development of alternative energy sources: ethanol made from switchgrass instead of corn; new solar, wind and car battery technologies; more energy efficiency and finding ways to make coal more environmentally friendly.

The program would provide $15 billion a year for 10 years. But don’t expect the money anytime soon — not in the first months or even the first few years of an Obama presidency.

The money under the Obama plan would come from selling pollution allowances to release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as part of a broad program to address global warming.

Unlike Bush, both Obama and McCain favor a mandatory cap on greenhouse gases and want Congress to create a cap-and-trade climate proposal. But its prospects, and whether it will contain the kind of revenue collection mechanism envisioned by Obama, is anything but certain. If it fails to materialize, Obama’s $150 billion program for spurring new energy technologies fizzles.

Other energy issues will greet the new president. McCain and Obama agree on some, sharply disagree on others, including the role of nuclear power.

A McCain presidency would be a boon to the nuclear power industry. He promises government support for building 45 new power reactors by 2030. Obama has expressed skepticism about nuclear power expansion while acknowledging the need for the reactors now operating.

A bigger divide exists on the nuclear industry’s thorniest problem: reactor waste.

McCain is a fan of Yucca Mountain, the proposed Nevada waste dump that is to be the burial place for more than 100,000 tons of highly radioactive waste generated by the country’s commercial reactors. Obama calls Yucca a mistake. Critical decisions on whether to go forward with it will have to be made early in the next presidency.

The Obama campaign on Saturday released a TV ad for Las Vegas and Reno stations criticizing McCain on the issue. The ad says, in part: “Imagine trucks hauling the nation’s nuclear waste on our highways to Yucca Mountain? John McCain supports opening Yucca. He’s not worried about nuclear waste in our state, only in Arizona.”

In response to the ad, the McCain campaign accused Obama of hypocrisy, noting that in 2005 Obama twice voted in favor of a $31.2 billion bill providing funding for energy and water development projects that included $577 million for Yucca Mountain. Yet McCain, though he backs the Yucca project, voted against the funding bill once — it passed 92-3 — and did not vote when it came up again, at which time it passed 84-4.

Ironically, Obama and McCain agree on one of the most polarizing energy and environmental issues of the last quarter century — whether to drill for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Neither wants to open the Alaska refuge to energy companies, something Bush has been trying to do for nearly eight years.

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