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High-Energy Campaign Promises

Author: Robert McMahon, Managing Editor
Updated: December 19, 2007


Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has vowed "a declaration of independence from the fear bred by our reliance on oil sheiks." Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) promises vehicle fuel standards of fifty-five miles per gallon (mpg) by 2030. Democrat John Edwards would require power companies to use renewable sources for 25 percent of their energy output by 2025. Presidential candidates from both parties pledge changes to energy policy that fall just short of revolutionary for Americans. But achieving the bipartisan, not to mention bicameral, support for them to pass Congress would be arduous, as the recent experience of the energy bill (WashPost) that President Bush signed into law on December 19 can attest.

That bill, which still requires approval from the House before going to President Bush, mandates improvements in U.S. vehicle fuel efficiency standards from an average of twenty-five mpg to thirty-five mpg by 2020, the first such change since the 1970s. But its passage showed the tough bargaining involved in getting Congress—and Americans—to change their energy habits. Approval came only after Democrats agreed to strip out provisions requiring utilities to set aside 15 percent of their power for renewable sources as well as to restore tax incentives for oil companies. The fuel efficiency standards are the most broadly accepted feature but still involved a bit of a struggle among Democrats. Now a new question arises: Which federal agency will monitor the system? The Environmental Protection Agency? The Transportation Department? As yet, Congress has not decided (AP).

Bush himself launched a call for energy independence nearly two years ago, decrying an "addiction to oil" from the Middle East. He set out a program for expanding alternative fuels such as ethanol, which he reinforced in his last State of the Union message. Legislators from both parties embraced Bush's proposed ethanol subsidies, and the new energy bill also includes a mandate to add thirty-six billion gallons of ethanol and other biofuels into gasoline by 2022. But this trend has raised concerns about a "reckless" biofuels policy that threatens the world's food system, says Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson. Ethanol defenders like former Senator Tom Daschle say this threat is overblown, as he writes in this rejoinder to a Foreign Affairs article on how biofuels could starve the poor.

Aside from boosting ethanol, of special importance in states with outsized electoral influence like Iowa, Democrats and Republicans generally diverge on energy policy. Democrats emphasize efficiency and climate-friendly solutions, and Republicans seek to expand domestic energy (IHT) sources. Such different approaches to policy make the goal of energy independence touted by some lawmakers elusive, if not impossible, for the United States. It is one year since a CFR Independent Task Force warned that "the lack of sustained attention to energy issues is undercutting U.S. foreign policy and national security." Perhaps the intensity of the debate over the latest congressional energy package, the inclusion of fuel efficiency standards, and the resonance of the issue on the campaign trail marks a new policy direction.

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