POLITICS: Campaigns tout renewables but continue to see future for coal, nuclear

Climate Wire - 4/14/08
Alex Kaplun, ClimateWire reporter

Even as the remaining presidential candidates travel across the country vowing to usher in a new energy economy centered on renewables and advanced energy technology, their policy advisers made clear last week that they have no intention of completely backing away from conventional technologies that have regularly drawn the ire of environmentalists.

At a forum in Washington sponsored by the Society of Environmental Journalists last week, advisers for the three White House hopefuls said they envision conventional technologies such as coal and nuclear playing a role in the country's bid to address climate change, though they admitted that certain technological and policy issues must still be addressed.

All three advisers did tout their candidate's plans to achieve energy independence and deal with climate change in a way centering on renewables and efficiency, but in almost every instance they admitted that their candidates do not envision a dramatic near-term move away from technologies such as coal and nuclear. In some instances, they even said they see them as a key part of the nation's energy mix well into the future.

Pro-nuclear power, but with caveats
On nuclear power, all three said they believe it will remain a major part of the country's energy portfolio, though the camp of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) appeared more willing to acknowledge that nuclear would need to be expanded in order to craft a solution for climate change.

"He is a supporter of nuclear as part of the portfolio, but certainly not exclusively so," said James Woolsey, a McCain energy adviser and former CIA director. "Insofar as one is unable to get done everything one needs to get done with efficiency improvements and with renewables, it is important to at least keep nuclear on the table as a possibility, because we may need some more baseload."

Jason Grumet, an adviser to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), also acknowledged that the expansion of nuclear may be a possibility, though he said several technological and political issues -- primarily centered around the handling of the nuclear waste -- need to be resolved before the candidate endorses such a step.

"He recognizes that there are dramatic challenges that have to be overcome before we have a new generation of nuclear power," Grumet said. "But he believes we have to try to overcome that problem because we have tremendous problems facing the other forms of non-carbon energy.

"He will not push forward with a new generation of nuclear power plants until those problems are solved."  Obama, whose home state of Illinois gets more than a third of its electricity from nuclear, has repeatedly said on the campaign trail that he sees a future for nuclear power. Grumet described Obama's position on nuclear power as being somewhere in the middle between McCain and his democratic rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

But Todd Stern, the representative from the Clinton campaign, said Clinton, likewise, would not dismiss nuclear and would look to grow the industry if and when the questions about waste and other issues were answered.

"Senator Clinton recognizes that 20 percent of our electricity comes from nuclear; you can't simply just throw it overboard," Stern said. "But in terms of expanding it further, there are unresolved questions with respect to safety, proliferation, waste, which until they get resolved further, she would have some reservation with trying to charge forward."

One other conventional energy source that crept into the discussion and that drew at least some endorsement from all three candidates was coal. All three campaigns said they envision coal-based power still being part of the country's energy portfolio for the near future, though there, too, it would only work if certain technological targets are met.

When asked if the Democratic candidates would support halting construction of new coal plants -- as former Vice President Al Gore and others have suggested -- both the Clinton and Obama camps responded that they intend to make sure that new facilities meet certain standards for carbon sequestration.

"She's in favor of requiring that new plants be built that are capable of adding carbon capture technology," said Stern of the Clinton campaign. "If there's going to be a future for coal this technology needs to work."

Though Grumet of the Obama campaign did not say specifically whether his candidate would attempt to slow down coal plant construction, he said the candidate envisioned implementing a climate change policy that would make it virtually impossible to build a coal plant that did not sequester all of its carbon emissions.

"His carbon cap program, an 80 percent reduction, will make it absolutely ludicrous to even contemplate any type of new coal plant that is not 100 percent sequestered," Grumet said. "If he is unable to get that carbon policy in place quickly, he will do whatever is necessary to prevent the siting of a new generation of pulverized coal facilities, including setting standards that would essentially be a moratorium."

Woolsey of the McCain campaign likewise endorsed carbon sequestration technology and criticized the Bush White House for seeming to slam the brakes on such research. "I think the administration set things back by canceling FutureGen," he said.

Should the government pick winners?
The willingness of all three candidates to support "clean coal" has drawn sharp criticism from some environmentalists, who say there is little evidence that such technology is feasible and argue that continued reliance on coal would only slow the development of other, cleaner technologies.

Overall, the debate between the campaigns largely involved the representatives reinforcing each other's positions, and in many instances they readily admitted that all the candidates have similar views on many climate-related issues, but the Democrats did at one point try to pick at the finer points of McCain's climate change message.

In particular, both Grumet and Stern criticized the McCain campaign for recent signals from his advisers that while the Republican nominee supports implementing a cap-and-trade system for carbon, he does not see the need for additional regulations in areas such as vehicles and renewable electricity standards.

"This debate is whether government should have performance standards in addition to the price of the carbon," Grumet said. "Stricter fuel economy standards, requirements for renewable energy: That's a place where Senator Obama believes that a carbon price, unto itself, won't get the job done."

Woolsey of the McCain campaign responded that the GOP senator did not believe the government should play too aggressive a role in deciding which technologies would meet the broad regulatory targets that he intends to set.

"You want to have the government ... have a general direction, such as a way from carbon, that is strongly promoted," Woolsey said. "But not get into the business of picking winners."