The third presidential debate yielded nothing new from Barack Obama or John McCain on climate or energy policy, but both candidates pointed to an environmental issue to demonstrate their independence from their respective parties.

Photo: Seth Wenig / AP

Barack Obama and John McCain.

When McCain challenged Obama to name a major issue on which he’s differed with Democratic leaders, Obama mentioned “clean coal,” among other things: “I support clean coal technology. Doesn’t make me popular with environmentalists.”

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McCain, in trying to distinguish himself from President Bush, said, “I have disagreed with leaders of my own party,” and took credit for “bringing climate change to the floor of the Senate for the first time.”

At one point, moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS said, “Let’s talk about energy and climate control,” but he then dropped the climate component and asked, “Would each of you give us a number, a specific number of how much you believe we can reduce our foreign oil imports during your first term?”

Both candidates gave plodding and at times off-topic answers.

Said McCain, “I think we can, for all intents and purposes, eliminate our dependence on Middle Eastern oil and Venezuelan oil. Canadian oil is fine.” He went on to promote his nuclear power plan, arguing that only “extreme environmentalists” have concerns about nuclear safety, and said, “So the point is with nuclear power, with wind, tide, solar, natural gas, with development of flex fuel, hybrid, clean coal technology, clean coal technology is key in the heartland of America that’s hurting rather badly.”

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McCain finally concluded that “we can easily, within seven, eight, 10 years, if we put our minds to it, we can eliminate our dependence on the places in the world that harm our national security if we don’t achieve our independence.”

Obama said it could be done in a decade. “I think that in 10 years, we can reduce our dependence so that we no longer have to import oil from the Middle East or Venezuela. I think that’s about a realistic time frame. And this is the most important issue that our future economy is going to face. Obviously, we’ve got an immediate crisis right now. But nothing is more important than us no longer borrowing $700 billion or more from China and sending it to Saudi Arabia. It’s mortgaging our children’s future.” He then repeated his energy talking points, saying that we need to expand domestic oil production but that we can’t drill ourselves out of our energy problem, so we need to put “resources into solar, wind, biodiesel, geothermal” and build efficient cars in the U.S.

It’s the Economy, Stupid — But Let’s Talk about Energy

As in the two previous debates, the candidates mentioned energy concerns repeatedly as they discussed the economy — even when energy had no logical bearing on the questions asked.

In responding to a question about balancing the budget in four years, McCain said, “We can do it with this kind of job creation of energy independence.” And later, in discussing how he would cut government spending: “Energy independence — We have to have nuclear power. We have to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don’t like us very much. It’s wind, tide, solar, natural gas, nuclear, offshore drilling, which Sen. Obama has opposed. And the point is that we become energy independent and we will create millions of jobs.”

Said Obama, “We’ve got some long-term challenges in this economy that have to be dealt with. We’ve got to fix our energy policy that’s giving our wealth away.” And he picked up the thread later: “If we invest in a serious energy policy, that will save in the amount of money we’re borrowing from China to send to Saudi Arabia.”

Obama indicated that raising taxes on the oil industry could benefit average Americans: “ExxonMobil, which made $12 billion, record profits, over the last several quarters, they can afford to pay a little more so that ordinary families who are hurting out there.”

Obama also brought up the auto industry, attempting to balance sympathy about economic woes with tough talk about the need for more efficient vehicles:

When I talked about the automakers, they are obviously getting hammered right now. They were already having a tough time because of high gas prices. And now with the financial crisis, car dealerships are closing and people can’t get car loans. That’s why I think it’s important for us to get loan guarantees to the automakers, but we do have to hold them responsible as well to start producing the highly fuel-efficient cars of the future.

And Detroit had dragged its feet too long in terms of getting that done. It’s going to be one of my highest priorities because transportation accounts for about 30 percent of our total energy consumption. If we can get that right, then we can move in a direction not only of energy independence, but we can create 5 million new jobs all across America, including in the heartland where we can retool some of these plants to make these highly fuel-efficient cars and also to make wind turbines and solar panels, the kinds of clean energy approaches that should be the driver of our economy for the next century.

Both candidates mentioned energy policy in response to a question about their running mates. Obama said Joe Biden will “make sure that we finally get serious about energy independence, something that has been languishing in Washington for 30 years.” McCain said that when Sarah Palin was the head of the Alaska Gas and Oil Conservation Commission, “she saw corruption, she resigned and said, ‘This can’t go on.’ … She negotiated with the oil companies and faced them down, a $40 billion pipeline of natural gas that’s going to relieve the energy needs of the United — of what they call the lower 48.”

In short, the final debate didn’t bear much new fruit on energy, climate, or any other environmental issue. And yet, even as the country is in the midst economic turmoil, both candidates wove energy issues into many of their responses. Might this mean that — regardless of the outcome on Nov. 4 — energy concerns will finally get the attention they deserve in the next administration?

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