APS News

Obama Energy Policy on View at Forum

An advance look at Obama administration energy policies was provided at a forum held in October at Stanford University, sponsored by Scientists and Engineers for America in partnership with APS and several other scientific societies. Advisors to both the Obama and McCain campaigns participated in the forum and answered questions from the audience.

There was broad agreement on the urgent need for a range of policies and new technology solutions to tackle the nation’s energy problem, though the candidate’s platforms differed in the details.  

Daniel M. Kammen, Senior Advisor on Energy & Environmental Policy for Barack Obama, and Kurt E. Yeager, co-chair of the McCain California Energy Security Coalition, participated in the debate. Kammen, a professor at UC Berkeley, was also a member of the APS study group that issued a report on energy efficiency in September (see the October APS News).

Both candidates recognized the need to implement a variety of measures to solve the energy problem. “This is a critical juncture. Both sides of the aisle, Republicans and Democrats, have awoken to the need to do something about an energy system that is fundamentally out of date,” Kammen said.

Obama’s energy plan includes developing new renewable energy sources, increased research and development, and a cap and trade system for carbon dioxide emissions.

At the October forum, Kammen emphasized the need to work on both increasing the market demand for clean energy and on increasing investment in developing innovative technology. “You cannot emphasize one part of the equation without the other,” Kammen said. “The Obama platform is deep with details on both the technology push, the R&D side, and the market transformation side of the equation.”

Obama is committed to a ten-year, $150 billion program divided between dramatically increasing the federal R&D program and building markets for clean energy.

This country invests less in energy research and development than it did before the OPEC crisis, Kammen pointed out. Right now the private sector in energy invests less than half of one percent back into R&D.

Obama supports a cap and trade system for carbon dioxide emissions, with permits to be auctioned, not given away. Obama also proposes using funds generated through the cap and trade system to fund energy initiatives for inner cities. “We can’t make energy a have and have not issue,” Kammen said. In addition, green technology “is one of the areas of true job creation.” Kammen said.

Another key part of the discussion is the role of energy efficiency, Kammen said. California, New York, and several other states are forty percent more efficient than the national average. The rest of the country can learn from those states, Kammen said. Energy efficiency must be made much more business as usual everywhere, not just in a few states, he said.

Unlike McCain, Obama supports windfall profits tax on oil, said Kammen, pointing out that there are good economic indicators that oil companies have reaped a windfall profit, and that they have under-invested in research.

Obama has also been supportive of a long-term extension of the investment tax credit. “This is one of the most effective mechanisms we have developed in this country” to support the growth of clean technology, said Kammen.   

While McCain’s energy plan stressed building new nuclear power plants and developing clean coal technology, Obama’s plan focuses on developing a variety of renewable energy sources. Kammen called McCain’s vision of 45 new nuclear plants unrealistic, though Obama supports nuclear power if it can be done safely. Obama opposes Yucca Mountain as a storage site for nuclear waste, but believes that nuclear waste can continue to be stored at power plant sites until a better permanent solution is agreed upon.

Obama also supports a mandated federal portfolio standard for renewable energy as well as investments in modernizing the grid.

Recognizing the need for energy independence, Obama would support some offshore drilling for oil if it is part of a broader compromise that brings about investment in clean energy alternatives, Kammen said, but he would not force offshore drilling on states that do not want it.

Since about 50% of electricity in the US comes from coal, and coal will probably continue to be a major source of energy for many years to come, Obama supports developing clean coal technology, even though that technology is probably a decade away.

Obama also wants to push companies to make more efficient products and empower consumers with more information than just the Energy Star rating. “We have not pushed anywhere near hard enough on electronics companies,” Kammen said.

International efforts are also needed as China and other countries are likely to significantly increase their energy use. “The United States has been a spectator to an evolving international effort for far too long. Obama is committed to getting the US to reengage substantively on this issue,” Kammen said.

Obama made energy one of the most important issues of his campaign, said Kammen. “We are going to have to make clean energy job one.” 

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Science Writing Intern: Nadia Ramlagan