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the Sydney Morning Herald

Candidates Are Not Coming Clean on Energy

Anne Davies

Last week the Republican nominee John McCain announced plans to end the 27-year ban on drilling for oil off America's coastline if he becomes president, clearing the way for exploration in the Gulf of Mexico and off California and Alaska.

McCain has already tried to tap the discontent of voters by offering a summer petrol tax holiday from early June until October, to howls of derision from economists who warned it would have no real impact on prices.

This latest policy banks on people being so incensed about rising petrol prices that they will be prepared to trade off the environmental risk of drilling for cheaper fuel -- even if it is a promise that would take 20 years to deliver on.

The plan also taps into the desire among many Americans to shake off the ties that bind them to the Middle East, by achieving greater energy independence. A day later McCain was backed by the President, George Bush, who said he would ask Congress to consider lifting the ban.

Not surprisingly, the environmental movement was appalled, but the bad news for McCain is that it also went over poorly in the key swing state of Florida, which earns much of its income from tourism. The idea of oil spills in the Gulf will be fertile territory for the Democrats.

But at least McCain is being realistic about where America's future energy needs are heading unless Americans adopt serious lifestyle changes. The Democrat Barack Obama's policy depends on huge leaps forward in solar and wind technology, which may come, but probably not fast enough.

When it comes to a coherent energy policy neither candidate has really levelled with the US public about what is facing them in the future. Most of the debate is couched in terms of "energy security" -- about the need for America to wean itself off Middle Eastern oil.

There are some generalised promises from both sides about efficiency standards for vehicles, investment in renewables and biofuels -- which was a big component of the US answer to energy security and climate change - until food prices started spiralling upwards, thanks to the policy of turning corn into fuel. But there is almost no talk about demand management, conservation and making lifestyle changes, which will be essential if America is going to have any chance of meeting either candidate's promises of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

It is worth putting in perspective exactly what Americans are facing when it comes to petrol prices. They have risen by about 65 per cent in a year and are just below $US4 a gallon ($1.10 a litre). Australians are paying between $1.56 and $1.69, while Britain pays £1.18 ($2.44 a litre).

Sometimes it is hard to see what Americans are moaning about, until you see the meter tick over at the bowser when they fill up the gas-guzzling family four-wheel-drive. And that's the problem. Last summer, when petrol prices were relatively low, there were record sales of recreational vehicles and sports utility vehicles.

It is only in the past few months that sales of small cars have shot up.

Obama makes a big deal about how he unveiled his new fuel efficiency standards for vehicles in Detroit in front of the car makers "and the room went really quiet". What he does not say is that Americans are going to need to make personal changes too, including moving to smaller cars, more public transport and a much bigger commitment to energy efficiency.

Few American households have clothes lines -- they rely on electric dryers, which are necessary in the winter months in many regions. But in many new housing estates, clothes lines are banned for aesthetic reasons. Building codes have few requirements for insulation or energy-saving devices, and most homes have central heating and ducted air-conditioning as standard features. As in Australia, the size of a standard home has mushroomed in the past 20 years, further increasing the energy footprint.

Obama's energy policy promises to tackle building codes and to mandate low-energy lightbulbs throughout America by 2014, to save 88 billion kilowatt hours of electricity a year.

But what he is not telling the people is that his plan for a carbon price to make renewables more competitive and to subsidise their development is going to see electricity costs rise sharply. The other part of the energy equation that is still a sleeper is nuclear power. Obama and McCain say they will allow new nuclear reactors to be built. Neither is saying where.

The big difference between them is that McCain has said he will proceed with plans to store nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, a repository that has been 10 years in the approval process.

Obama, who is hoping to win Nevada, has ruled out storing waste in Yucca Mountain, instead offering "to lead federal efforts to look for a safe long-term disposal solution".

Meanwhile, McCain's buses bearing the slogan Straight Talk Express and Obama's with Change We Can Believe In rumble through America. The candidates are not levelling with the public, while the energy industry continues to paint a sunny picture of the future.

America's coal industry is running a campaign promising "clean coal, America's future"; the petroleum industry promises blue skies with its cleaner diesel fuels for trucks, and the energy companies insist that they are doing their bit on renewables.

America is in for a rude shock and higher energy prices might be the shock therapy required.

Anne Davies in the Herald's Washington correspondent.

Copyright © 2008. The Sydney Morning Herald

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