In part the first I made four points about political context:
- Obama’s no ordinary candidate — given his considerable political liabilities, he is at unique pains to appear reasonable and post-partisan and unexotic.
- The American people are all-of-the-above on energy — saying no to particular sources or technologies is perceived as vaguely ideological and interest-groupy.
- Obama’s effort to capture a few key red states means that he needs the votes of working class whites — he won’t get them bashing coal.
- Greens have nowhere else to go — Obama’s job in the campaign is to pull in swing voters, not blow kisses at loyal factions.
Now, I won’t try to talk enviros out of protesting Obama’s frequent nods to dirty energy. That’s their job. But it’s important that they heed what he’s actually saying. Listen closely and you can hear a fairly radical message, hidden right under the nation’s nose, as it were.
You can see the same pattern at work with nuclear and coal. He acknowledges they should be part of the mix:
- In the July 2007 primary debate: "We should explore nuclear power as part of the energy mix. There are no silver bullets … we’re going to have to try a whole series of approaches …"
- In Ohio, March 2008: "Clean-coal technology should be part of that [energy] mix. We are the Saudi Arabia of coal."
But he’s careful to insist that they meet certain performance standards:
- In his energy plan, he says "there is no future for expanded nuclear without first addressing four key issues: public right-to-know, security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage, and proliferation." In an Oct. 2007 speech he said, "There should be no short cuts or regulatory loopholes — period."
- Obama’s climate plan says that he "will use whatever policy tools are necessary, including standards that ban new traditional coal facilities, to ensure that we move quickly to commercialize and deploy low carbon coal technology."
He also supports supplementary measures that would make life difficult for them:
- Obama opposes storing waste in Yucca Mountain.
- He opposes mountaintop-removal mining (anything that curtails MTR will substantially raise the price of coal)
So you can see, rhetorically this gives Obama great range. He can tell enviros, as he did at a Dec. 2007 town hall event: "I start off with the premise that nuclear energy is not optimal. I am not a nuclear energy proponent." He can tell the Sentinel that he is "agnostic on nuclear power." And on his campaign’s fact-checking site, his campaign can boast, "Obama Has Supported Nuclear Power."
Some folks will call this politiciany double-talk and weasel words. Me, I think it’s smart. Obama supports nuclear power in that he has no objections to it being a prominent part of the energy mix if it can solve its waste and proliferation problems. That conditional phrase is everything. Nuclear proponents think nuclear can solve those problems (or already has); nuclear opponents think it can’t. But can either disagree with the conditional phrase itself? Would anyone oppose nuclear if it really did solve all those problems?
Same with coal. Obama "supports" coal — liquid coal and coal-with-sequestration– if it can meet high GHG emission standards. Liquid coal has to meet the standards of his low-carbon fuel standard. "Clean coal" has to show that it can safely sequester its emissions (and Obama’s willing to fund several demonstration projects to find out).
Now, I — who think coal is the enemy of the human race — don’t think liquid coal can meet a low-carbon fuel standard. I don’t think coal plants ever will be able to cost-effectively sequester all their emissions. So Obama’s position is just a restatement of mine, in more politically anodyne terms.
The offshore drilling business is an even easier case. The offshore drilling provisions Obama’s been willing to give ground on are unlikely to result in much actual drilling. Given that, if he can gain some political advantage by saying he "supports offshore drilling," what’s the harm?
The only place where this defense breaks down is on the subject of ethanol, where Obama’s support seems to be genuine and to involve many billions of public subsidies, and McCain’s position is substantively correct. On this Obama deserves all the lumps he takes.
Originally this was intended to be one short post, and now it’s two long ones. So I’ll do one one more, attempting to tidily summarize all the above rambling.