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Sparks Fly over Energy

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
Updated: September 4, 2008

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ST. PAUL —Hurricane Gustav ended up less destructive than feared for New Orleans and the Gulf oil industry, but on the other end of the Mississippi River the storm served as a fresh reminder of the energy security issue for Republicans gathering at their presidential nominating convention. As Gustav's winds were still blowing, the party launched its convention by passing a platform containing what it called "the most aggressive and innovative energy policy in Republican Party history." Echoing a refrain heard from a number of Republicans gathered in the Twin Cities, the platform states: "We simply must draw more American oil from American soil." It lays out a plan for accelerated development of oil fields off the coast and onshore as well as a long-term plan for spurring alternatives such as nuclear energy and moving to what it called an "emissions-free future."

Republican nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), and other leaders of both major parties have expressed alarm at the dependence of the United States, the world's largest energy user, on foreign sources of oil. That concern has become especially acute as the world's main corridors and regions of oil come under the influence of geopolitical—as well as natural—events. The Republicans' stepped-up call for domestic drilling received a further boost on the third day of the GOP convention, September 3, when McCain's vice-presidential pick, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, called for more production of U.S. oil and gas as part of a balanced energy policy. “We’re going to lay more pipelines ... build more nuclear plants ... create jobs with clean coal ... and move forward on solar, wind, geothermal, and other alternative sources,” Palin said.

Obama and Democratic leaders have signaled support for the compromise drilling measure put forward by the bipartisan legislative Gang of 10, although Obama is skeptical that new drilling will bring down prices in the near term. And while the Democratic Party platform also highlights the national security dimension of U.S. energy problems, it places a more vigorous focus on alternatives to oil.

What's clear is that the summer crest of gas prices above the $4-per-gallon mark has made energy security a top issue for Americans as the election cycle reaches its final stage. New polling (PDF) carried out by the UN Foundation, unveiled during the past two weeks of political conventions, shows a large majority of Americans view U.S. dependence on foreign oil as the number one international concern. A series of other polls this summer have also showed a majority of Americans favorably disposed toward removing limits on offshore drilling. Even dissident Republican Rep. Ron Paul, who ran a well-attended protest rally on the sidelines of the GOP convention in St. Paul, has come out in favor of increased domestic drilling.

Some experts warn that U.S. policymakers should cease pursuing what a CFR Independent Task Force called the "chimera of independence" and seek to better manage its dependencies through smarter policies aimed at easing consumption. CFR Senior Fellow Michael A. Levi told a panel discussion this week in Minneapolis that U.S. energy independence was an impossible notion, but he said there were a number of measures to lessen the country's dependence on oil from unsavory regimes. He called for much greater government involvement in spurring research and development on alternative fuels in addition to efforts on controlling consumption, such as a gas tax.

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