Iowa Public Television


McCain and Obama Spar Over Renewable Energy

posted on October 24, 2008

Residents of the nation's leading ethanol-producing state signaled this week that as far as development of alternative energy goes, a significant change is in the wind.

A poll of 800 Iowans conducted in September and released by the Des Moines Register this week revealed 67 percent of respondents believe growth of ethanol production has been positive for their state. But, when the Register's "Iowa Poll" asked which form of energy state government should encourage, 58 percent said wind, 19 percent answered solar and only 16 percent preferred ethanol.

The shift in preference represents yet another challenge for ethanol, the once glorified, but increasingly vilified, homegrown alternative. And as Andrew Batt explains in the 2nd of a series of reports on the politics of renewable fuels, it's likely that wind, solar, and other alternative fuels will play significant roles in America's energy future.

On the campaign trail….

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona: "Wind, tide, solar, natural gas, we need it all."

And in the debates…

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois: "We need renewable energy resources."

Alternative energy has become a central issue for the next President of the United States. No image has defined the public relations arm of renewable energy more than the spinning blades of a 21st century wind farm. And both candidates have touted the ability to promote and expand wind energy.

Randall Swisher, Exec. Director of the American Wind Energy Association: "We are going to do everything we can to make sure that the candidates live up to those images. We're certainly paying close attention to the policy positions and votes that they take line up with the image."

Randall Swisher has spent much of his tenure at the American Wind Energy Association lobbying lawmakers to support wind energy. During this year's political conventions, energy lobbyists like Swisher were present in Denver and St. Paul – hoping to push for industry-friendly legislation. For the most part, Swisher says both parties are supportive.

Randall Swisher, Exec. Director of the American Wind Energy Association: "Both parties support the production tax credit. We are hoping that John McCain will vote for the credit on the Senate floor. Obama has voted for it in the past and McCain has not. Part of that was traveling on the behalf of his campaign and the lack of party consensus on how the package was put together."

Alternative energy, like wind power, has taken a backseat to the economic crisis in recent weeks but wind energy received a much needed shot in the arm on Capitol Hill. The massive $700 billion economic bailout bill passed in Congress includes a one-year extension of the wind energy tax credit. Both McCain and Obama voted for the bailout proposal and in turn for the wind energy tax credit. But the extension was originally set to expire this December and many future projects were on hold pending a credit extension.

According to the American Wind Energy Association, 2008 will mark the fourth year in a row that new wind capacity breaks the previous year's record. But the late passage of tax credits ensures new construction starts for wind projects in 2009 will be negatively affected. Industry experts also critique lawmakers for failing to push a long-term wind energy tax proposal. One of the largest critics of Washington and proponents of wind energy is a southern oil man. And he's not running for President.

T. Boone Pickens, BP Capital Management: "I've gone up to Washington so many times and they don't get anything done. That is why I'm trying to get you guys signed on to my plan."

T. Boone Pickens, an oil tycoon with a $58 million dollar advertising campaign, has crisscrossed the country to push his energy plan.

Market to Market: "Is it the number one issue in this country?"

T. Boone Pickens, BP Capital Management: "I think it is. You can't go forward with health care or education if you don't solve the energy problem."

The so-called Pickens Plan involves a massive natural gas conversion for domestic cars and trucks, vast fields of solar power in the American southwest, and a dramatic wind corridor throughout the Midwest.

Stretching from Texas north through the Dakotas, Pickens "wind corridor" would face considerable obstacles including turbine placement, construction, and most importantly corridors for power distribution. Critics have accused Pickens of trying to use renewable energy as a means to amassing billions of dollars in profits. It's an accusation Pickens openly embraces.

T. Boone Pickens, BP Capital Management: "I don't do anything without making a profit. Don't get me wrong here. I want to make money too."

Pickens, a long-time Republican and oil billionaire, has not endorsed a candidate's energy plan but has met with Senators McCain and Obama.

T. Boone Pickens, BP Capital Management: "I want to put the pressure on both these guys...and I want them to come up with an energy plan and mine is the best one so yes I would like them to say Boone has the best plan."

While both candidates have praised Pickens for his proposal, neither campaign has pledged to follow through on the Pickens plan after election day.

Back on the campaign trail, neither wind energy, natural gas, nor biofuels dominated the energy discussion this past summer. In the height of skyrocketing gas prices, Senator John McCain was defiant on a central focus of his energy policy.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona: "We're going to drill here and drill now. Drill now." (State Fair clip)

The McCain campaign's mantra of immediate offshore oil drilling became a Republican battle cry at both national conventions.

Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House: "Do you think all that yelling is going to solve the problem?"

When House Democratic leaders sought to outline renewable energy proposals outside of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado, Republican protestors forced the Democrats to scale back their public press conference.

(Slug protestors: "Drill here. Drill Now!")

Some Democratic leaders blasted the slogan as a step back from alternative energy and a "trivial" campaign slogan.

Gov. Bill Richardson, D-New Mexico: "Drill here drill now is not an energy plan. What about wind? What about solar? What about alternative energy? More drilling is not the answer."

At the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, the promise of offshore oil drilling was one of the loudest applause lines of Senator McCain's acceptance speech.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona: "And we have to drill offshore…"

One week earlier in Denver, Obama reacted pointedly to his position on offshore oil drilling.

Obama in Denver: "Yes, offshore drilling but only as a stop-gap measure to get us to renewable energy."

But offshore drilling's status as a campaign issue faded with a whimper when Congressional leaders simply allowed the ban on oil drilling to expire this fall. Regardless of oil drilling, the political conventions and debates have provided divisive and sometimes misleading statements about either candidates view on alternative energy.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer, D-Montana: "John McCain has voted against alternative energy 25 times…25 times."

The Obama campaign and their surrogates have blasted Senator McCain for voting against alternative energy more than 20 times. But the number of votes against wind energy or biofuels may be deceptive.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois: "Sen. McCain and I actually agree on something. He said a while back that the big problem with energy is that for 30 years, politicians in Washington haven't done anything.

What Sen. McCain doesn't mention is he's been there 26 of them. And during that time, he voted 23 times against alternative fuels, 23 times."

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona: "By the way, my friends, I know you grow a little weary with this back-and-forth. It was an energy bill on the floor of the Senate loaded down with goodies, billions for the oil companies, and it was sponsored by Bush and Cheney.

You know who voted for it? You might never know. That one. You know who voted against it? Me. I have fought time after time against these pork barrel -- these bills that come to the floor and they have all kinds of goodies and all kinds of things in them for everybody and they buy off the votes.

I vote against them, my friends. I vote against them."

While McCain has voted against ethanol in the past, at least one of the supposedly 20-some votes against alternative energy by the Arizona Senator was the 2005 energy bill. Congressional energy bills often contain hundreds of measures and in this case Senator McCain highlighted oil company tax breaks he voted against and Senator Obama pinpointed a wide range of alternative energy proposals McCain voted against within the 2005 bill. In reality, the 2005 energy bill enabled a net tax increase on oil companies.

The 2008 Presidential election will be the first in more than four decades to place a sitting U.S. Senator in the White House. It remains to be seen which candidate will push alternative energy in the 21st century.

For Market to Market, I'm Andrew Batt.


Tags: agriculture alternative energy Barack Obama biofuels campaign 2008 Democrats elections ethanol Iowa John McCain news politics presidential candidates Republicans solar wind