Posted by Olive Heffernan on behalf of Alex Witze
There are only 17 months left until the US presidential election, which means it’s time for the jockeying to begin in earnest. On climate issues, this means that the leading candidates from both parties have in recent weeks been competing to see who can be greener than thou.
Most notable has been the recent about-face pulled by Illinois senator Barack Obama, the fledgling star of the Democratic party, on coal-to-liquids technology. Illinois is a state with a lot of coal, and so it was perhaps not surprising when earlier this year Obama supported legislation that would give tax breaks to the coal industry to develop coal-to-liquids (CTL) technology. The problem is that CTL is a major emitter of greenhouse gases, even if much of the resulting carbon is captured in sequestration. So recently Obama backed off his support of CTL, saying he thinks it is a good idea only if the technology improves to the point of emitting fewer carbon emissions over its life cycle than conventional fuels. A political move to be sure, but one with significant energy ramifications, given Obama’s prominence in the race so far.
Obama’s leading rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, has no such problems: she represents New York, a state with little interest in coal. She has instead come out with alternative energy plans that rely heavily on taxes and research money to shift the US away from dependence on foreign oil. Using the same rhetoric one hears from many energy experts these days, she says the US needs an investment on the scale of the Apollo moon project to improve energy efficiency. This may be true — but given the level of wrangling going on in Congress this week over proposed energy legislation, it’s pretty clear that we would have never gotten to the moon at all had politicians been in charge.
Meanwhile, trailing far behind Clinton, Obama, and former senator John Edwards in the Democratic field is a man who really knows his energy: Bill Richardson, currently governor of New Mexico and former US Secretary of Energy. As he points out in a critically-acclaimed YouTube campaign ad, the man is perhaps too qualified to be president. This is the man to listen to for true energy wonkery.
On the Republican side, former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani has criticized the Bush administration for a lack of action on climate issues; Giuliani supports a range of approaches, including popular ones like ethanol and unpopular ones like nuclear power. John McCain, the senator from Arizona, is of course a leading proponent of legislation to cut carbon emissions; the bill he co-sponsored years ago with Joe Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent from Connecticut, is the early gold standard for climate-change legislation, proposing a 65 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. And the third leading Republican candidate, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, has said relatively little so far, other than the standard lines about reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil.
Potential late entries into the race could also shake up energy and climate issues. Rumors continue to swirl that former vice-president and climate lecturer Al Gore may jump in. And Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire current mayor of New York, this week withdrew from the Republican party in what is widely seen as a move towards a potential presidential candidacy as an independent. He’s been very active on energy issues – for instance, ordering the entire New York taxi fleet to convert to hybrid vehicles within five years. And his closeness with California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger makes for a powerful partnership of regional leaders who want to pave the way for federal action on climate.
Stay tuned – it’ll be a long and interesting 17 months.
Senior News and Features Editor