Muckraker: Grist on Politics

With the lengthy discussion of energy and climate issues in last night’s debate, it was easy to miss some important aspects as the vice presidential candidates sped through their respective talking points.

For example, Joe Biden’s repeated plugs for “clean coal” irked enviros, particularly the folks at 1Sky. It was a 1Sky organizer who asked Biden about clean coal on a rope line recently, prompting him to badmouth it; that got the McCain and Obama campaigns bickering over who loves clean coal more.

“It’s time to call the bluff. There is no such thing as clean coal,” said 1Sky campaign director Gillian Caldwell. “What he should have said is that clean coal does not exist. If clean coal technology did exist, if somebody could prove that carbon capture and storage technology existed, it could be put to good use to face the challenges in countries like China where coal is proliferating. But it does not exist right now, and it’s a red herring.”

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Sarah Palin, too, talked up clean coal during the debate, further exasperating anti-coal campaigners.

“What’s concerning is that the political climate is such that both candidates feel like it’s an advantage with the electorate to promote a mythological response to global warming and energy independence,” Caldwell said.


While Biden’s coal pandering was problematic for enviros, they were more alarmed at Palin’s continued reticence about the root cause of climate change. “I’m not one to attribute every activity of man to the changes in the climate,” said Palin. “There is something to be said also for man’s activities, but also for the cyclical temperature changes on our planet.”

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“I don’t want to argue about the causes,” she said. “What I want to argue about is, how are we going to get there to positively affect the impacts?”

But, of course, if she’s still not sure if and how much humans are causing climate change, and how much it’s “cyclical temperature changes,” it’s not clear what she thinks humankind can do to reverse it — a point Biden himself made in a response during last night’s debate. Enviros, to no one’s surprise, continue to buck at her obfuscation on this topic.

“If your mapmaker still believes the world is flat, you don’t rely on her for good directions,” said League of Conservation Voters president Gene Karpinski following the debate. “If your candidate doesn’t believe in the causes of global warming, you don’t rely on her for real energy solutions.”

“Sarah Palin again said ‘thanks but no thanks’ to the science of global warming last night,” said Cathy Duvall, Sierra Club’s political director. “Not only does she continue to remain willfully unaware of the causes of climate change, but she also failed to recognize that other Republican governors like [Arnold] Schwarzenegger [of California] and [Charlie] Crist [of Florida] have actually been true leaders in the fight to reduce global warming pollution in their states and nationwide.”

Palin’s repeated calls for expanded drilling were also poorly received. Here’s her talking about how the country shouldn’t be bullied into opposing drilling by “East Coast politicians”:

When we talk about energy, we have to consider the need to do all that we can to allow this nation to become energy independent. It’s a nonsensical position that we are in when we have domestic supplies of energy all over this great land. And East Coast politicians who don’t allow energy-producing states like Alaska to produce these, to tap into them, and instead we’re relying on foreign countries to produce for us.

But, in fact, West Coast leaders have said “thanks but no thanks” to offshore drilling (the exception being, of course, Alaska). California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opposes drilling off his state’s coast and has aggressively challenged his partymates on the issue, saying anyone who suggests that offshore drilling would lower gas prices is “blowing smoke.” Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) have also pledged to fight offshore drilling.

Palin followed with this:


We’re circulating about $700 billion a year into foreign countries, some who do not like America — they certainly don’t have our best interests at heart — instead of those dollars circulating here, creating tens of thousands of jobs and allowing domestic supplies of energy to be tapped into and start flowing into these very, very hungry markets.

Energy independence is the key to this nation’s future, to our economic future, and to our national security. So when we talk about energy plans, it’s not just about who got a tax break and who didn’t. And we’re not giving oil companies tax breaks, but it’s about a heck of a lot more than that.

On her first point, that we should keep “those dollars circulating here,” she seems to forget that oil companies, and therefore the oil markets, are multinational in scope, so it’s not quite as simple as keeping American money at home in America, especially as global demand for oil is expected to continue growing as China and India expand their economies.

On her second point, that “we’re not giving oil companies tax breaks,” the stated policies of her running mate would in fact do just that. McCain’s proposals would not only continue subsidies for Big Oil, which would total $33 billion [PDF] in the next five years, but they would also cut taxes on oil companies by nearly $4 billion a year [PDF]. The cuts would come via his call to reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent and allow corporations to deduct all of their expenditures on equipment and technology.


Palin also attacked Biden for opposing drilling:

You even called drilling — safe, environmentally friendly drilling offshore — as raping the Outer Continental Shelf. With new technology, with tiny footprints even on land, it is safe to drill and we need to do more of that. But also in that “all of the above” approach that Sen. McCain supports, the alternative fuels will be tapped into: the nuclear, the clean coal.

Yet drilling remains far from “environmentally friendly.” In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused 146 oil spills in federal waters, completely destroyed 113 oil rigs, and damaged 457 pipelines, resulting in oil spills large enough to be seen from space. During Hurricane Ike last month, at least three offshore rigs disappeared and are presumed to be total losses, and another deep-water production system sustained significant damage.

Palin also claimed that she “was the first governor to form a climate change subcabinet to start dealing with the impacts.” But before she formed that committee in September 2007, the governors of Massachusetts and Nevada had both created similar committees, and at least 29 states had already begun taking steps to address climate change.

But perhaps what’s most notable about last night from an environmental perspective is that climate and energy issues got so much play. Never before in a major debate have the candidates spent so much time talking about these issues, answering a number of direct climate and energy questions from the moderator. Even if enviros didn’t like everything they said, at least that’s progress.

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