On energy policy, is better than Bush enough?

The Boston Globe has just published a good op-ed critique of McCain’s energy and climate policy. The piece is by Carol Browner, former EPA administrator, and Bob Sussman, a campaign adviser to Obama, and former EPA deputy administrator. It is reprinted below:

LAST WEEK, the Senate considered a bipartisan global warming bill — the closest such a far-reaching measure has ever come to passage. Although the bill failed in the end, over half of the Senate supported action on climate change.

The next Congress and administration will have a historic opportunity to build on this momentum and deliver the American people a comprehensive program to reduce greenhouse gases. The voters this fall must decide an important question: Who is the best candidate to make that happen?

Following Senator John McCain’s May 12 speech on global warming, many hastily praised the Republican presidential candidate for breaking ranks with President Bush and his own party’s orthodoxy by calling for mandatory greenhouse gas reductions. But we should not be so quick to give McCain kudos. While McCain represents an improvement over eight long years of denial and inaction by the Bush administration, being better than the current president is not good enough. In fact, McCain’s record and recent proposals raise real questions about his commitment to the bold measures we need to combat global warming.

If McCain’s version of straight talk on the environment means missing key votes for clean low-carbon energy, then we have a lot to worry about. Twice, in December and February, when the Senate failed by one vote to extend key production tax incentives for wind and solar power, McCain not only didn’t vote but said subsequently he would have opposed these measures. Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, voted for them.

While many agree that a “cap and trade” program is probably the best mechanism to achieve the necessary reductions in greenhouse gases, McCain’s “cap and trade” proposal comes up notably short. Take, for example, the issue of allocation of allowances to emit greenhouse gases. McCain would initially distribute all of the allowances free of charge to emitters, which the experts agree would likely mean a windfall to these polluters. McCain would have Congress punt to an unelected commission to make a decision — somewhere down the road — on when and in what amounts allowances might be auctioned. Obama advocates a 100 percent auction of allowances from the start. He would use the revenues generated by the auction to help consumers meet energy costs and promote clean technologies.

McCain would also allow polluters to meet all of their obligations by buying emission reductions, or “offsets,” from other sectors of the economy or from outside the United States. By opening the door to unlimited offsets, McCain’s approach would invite polluters to take credit for alleged reductions that cannot be verified and allow the highest emitting sources to continue operating dirty facilities indefinitely. Obama would limit the use of offsets and would direct EPA to examine rigorously any offsets used.

In addition to a strong cap and trade program, other tools will be required to achieve a serious reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Once again McCain’s positions come up short. His global warming plan specifically rejects tighter building standards for energy-efficient homes as burdensome regulation. But then, McCain has repeatedly voted against national renewable electricity standards similar to the standards already adopted in nearly half of the states. By contrast, Obama has made ambitious proposals to boost development and deployment of new efficiency and renewable energy technologies.

While McCain told the online publication Grist last October, “I’m not one who believes that we need to subsidize things,” he has long been fixated on subsidizing nuclear plant construction — which already receives substantial federal support. One of the reasons he gave for opposing the recent Senate climate change bill was the absence of sufficient nuclear incentives.

The world’s leading climate scientists are absolutely clear climate change is real and the time for action is now. Barack Obama has made bold and comprehensive proposals that will deliver the deep emission reductions scientists say are essential. Although McCain once introduced legislation, his current positions on energy, renewables and a cap and trade program are simply outdated; they have not kept pace with the times.

Carol M. Browner was EPA administrator from 1993 to 2001. Bob Sussman, a campaign adviser to Barack Obama, was EPA deputy administrator from 1993–94.

[Note: Browner and Sussman are both affiliated with the Center for American Progress, where I am a senior fellow. But I like their analysis anyway!]

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