debate over energy policy taking backseat as election draws near

by Steven Brown

As Election Day draws nearer, the list of talking points for the presidential hopefuls has been set firmly in granite. Unfortunately, U.S. energy policy is not near the top of that list.

There is little reason to think that the debates between Kerry and Bush will deviate much from the pattern they’ve held for several months now. The fight against global terrorism, the continuing struggle in Iraq, national security, and—for some reason—the Vietnam War, will continue to dominate the discussion.

After the Sturm und Drang portion of the show, the candidates will turn attention to discussion of the economy. One candidate will use a variety of Census Bureau statistics and economic indicators to show that we¿re entering an age of prosperity; the other will use many of those same sources to prove that we’re experiencing our most woeful and dark days since the 1930s.

Health care comes next, then education, then, if there’s any time left, or if anyone is still listening, there will be some discussion about our nation’s energy future.

Energy policy has gotten short shrift in the discourse between candidates so far, and that situation isn’t likely to change between now and Nov. 2. For the majority of the populace, energy policy simply isn’t a polarizing issue. Most Americans want power, and they want it cheap. Certainly, some will lament the dependence on foreign oil and others will decry the lack of alternative or renewable power sources, but as long as power flows, and flows inexpensively, the voting public is happy.

Not only is energy policy not a polarizing issue for the voting public, it’s barely a contestable issue between the two candidates themselves. Where Bush and Kerry seek to set themselves widely apart on the issues of foreign policy, the economy, health care and war, the two are fairly cozy in their discussion of energy issues.

Both candidates espouse the use of clean coal technology; both favor stricter, enforceable electric reliability standards; both have plans to clean the air and water.

And, both have the same main plank in their energy policy platforms: that the U.S. needs to be less dependent on foreign oil. The only difference seems to be in semantics.

At the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Senator Kerry used war—or, to be more correct, the avoidance of war—as the main selling point for energy independence.

“… our energy plan for a stronger America will invest in new technologies and alternative fuels and the cars of the future, so that no young American in uniform will ever be held hostage to our dependence on oil from the Middle East,” Kerry told those gathered.

A little more than a month later, President Bush, speaking at the Republican National Convention in New York City, mimicked the point, but couched the message in vague economic terms:

“To create jobs, we will make our country less dependent on foreign sources of energy.”

And therein lies the main reason we won’t hear much debate about energy before we all head to the polls on Nov. 2. It’s generally not a point of divergence for the two primary candidates–at least not to the extent that foreign policy and economic policy are. If the blackout of Aug. 14, 2003, had occurred a year later, the debates might well be taking a different tone. Pull the plug on New York City two weeks before the Republican National Convention, and then the candidates would have something to discuss.

As it is, these two candidates, with their often diametrically opposing viewpoints, are simply too close to the center on energy policy to warrant much useful debate on this very important issue. That’s not to say Kerry and Bush don’t differ on energy. Certainly, Kerry can be seen as the “greener” candidate, while Bush favors more domestic exploration and production of fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

But the two don’t seem to be waging any of their campaign battles on the energy front —not that it would make much difference if they did. As Mary Anne Sullivan notes in her report, “the hard realities of energy policy in an election year”, … campaigns rarely produce the best thinking on tough policy issues. … No matter who wins, there will be a lot of hard thinking and policy-making to do post-election if we are to really address the hard realities of U.S. energy policy.”

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