As Adam pointed out, it seems to have become conventional wisdom among media that the presidential candidates’ positions on climate change are roughly identical. But the campaigns themselves don’t see it that way. That became clear during a panel featuring the candidates’ top energy advisors.

Obama was represented by Jason Grumet, whose day job is running the Bipartisan Policy Center. The Clinton campaign sent Gene Sperling, senior fellow at both the Council of Foreign Relations and the Center for American Progress and onetime (Bill) Clinton National Economic Adviser. In the Republican corner was Douglas Holtz-Eakin, widely respected former head of CBO, current senior fellow at the CFR, and McCain’s policy director.

Let me just say that this was a fantastic way to explore the candidates’ take on climate. With candidates themselves, you inevitably get variations on the stump speech. These guys were less programmed, less polished, and more authentically interested in policy. It was highly educational.

As everyone knows by now, all three candidates support a cap-and-trade system. Beyond that top-line commonality, however, the discussion revealed at least three substantial and significant differences.

Permit auctions

First was the issue of how to distribute pollution permits under the C&T system. Obama and Clinton both support auctioning 100 percent of the permits; McCain doesn’t.

Holtz-Eakin dismissed 100 percent auction as a "blackboard exercise." He cited industries’ "different historical costs" and "different ability to pass costs on to consumers" as support for McCain’s mix of auction and allocation (mirroring the position of the coal utilities). What he didn’t specify is just what that mix would be — particularly whether he’d want more or less allocation than what the Lieberman-Warner bill provides.

Jason Grumet provided a succinct defense of auctions as "the right aspiration":

  • Economists say 100 percent auctions is most efficient;
  • one of the main problems with the debate is complexity and concern about pork barrel shenanigans — 100 percent auctions is simple and transparent;
  • our electricity sector is half-regulated and half-deregulated, and it’s extremely difficult to come up with an allocation scheme that works fairly across both.

He added that we "need to get this done," implying that Obama would be willing to compromise (clear enough from Obama’s co-sponsorship of three climate bills in the Senate, none of which have 100 percent auction).

Sperling also emphasized the key point that 100 percent auction is more transparent than the alternatives: It puts the money in public coffers where we can have an open, democratic debate about how it should be spent and how families can be protected.

Supplemental policies

It was Holtz-Eakin who made the point that beneath the surface of cap-and-trade is a broad philosophical difference. McCain’s opponents, he said, would not stop with cap-and-trade. They would supplement it with additional policies and regulations: increases in CAFE, efficiency standards, renewable portfolio standards, etc. This, Holtz-Eakin contended, was a symptom of their addiction to the heavy hand of government control, used to "micromanage" the economy. McCain, he said, would pass cap-and-trade and otherwise get out of the way and let the economy do its thing.

Grumet made the point that to get the reductions we need purely with cap-and-trade, you’d need a price per ton of carbon so high as to be prohibitive — on the order of $150/ton. A more reasonable price, say $35, wouldn’t do much to affect, say, the transportation sector. That is precisely why you need CAFE and other supplemental policies (efficiency standards, utility decoupling, etc.).

(For what it’s worth, as I understand it Grumet has the better of this one. Most energy policy analysts I know of recognize that a reasonable price on carbon is only the beginning, and will not in and of itself get us where we need to go.)

Nuclear power

McCain’s position on nuclear is well known: he’s fer it. Holtz-Eakin said the problems with nuclear are political, not technical (he dinged Reid for standing in the way of Yucca).

Sperling and Grumet took slightly different tones — Sperling more skeptical and agnostic, Grumet more enthusiastic — but they described basically the same policy: if nuke can solve its well-known problems with cost, waste, and proliferation danger, they’re for it. But only if it can solve those problems. This is simple to say, but of course actually solving those problems is a huge, uncertain undertaking and would at the very least delay the start of a new round of nuclear plants.

These differences are not small potatoes — not the kind of things that should be glossed over by the media, and certainly not by voters.

Here’s a video of highlights from the panel: