The World of Electricity According to John McCain, Barack Obama, Al Gore, T. Boone Pickens and Paris Hilton

by Richard Lehfeldt and Amanda Greene

Time was, if you told someone at a dinner party that you were an energy lawyer, people would look for the nearest exit. No longer. We are now not just tolerated, we are positively trendy. When Paris Hilton releases a video articulating an energy policy, you know that the world is finally taking note of your life’s work. Can movie options for we tillers of the soil be far behind?

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The two main presidential candidates are talking about electricity, as are former Vice President Al Gore and oil magnate T. Boone Pickens. What are they saying, and what do their pronouncements bode for the future?

We start with Al Gore, the boldest of the lot, who proposes to “end our reliance on carbon-based fuels” by “challeng[ing] the nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly carbon-free sources within 10 years.”

To underscore the breadth of his “challenge,” it would entail not only building carbon-free power plants for the future, but also presumably retiring the entire operating fleet of power plants that currently emit carbon, i.e., the 70 percent-plus of generators that run on coal and natural gas.

T. Boone Pickens also paints with a broad brush. He would divert the nation’s natural gas from power plants to natural gas vehicles, and concentrate on wind and solar renewable resources for new electric capacity the nation needs.

This proposal, in Pickens’ view, would generate a “three-fer” for the nation: it would wean us from foreign oil in the transportation sector, reduce reliance on CO2-emitting natural gas in the power sector, and set the nation on course toward a renewable power future.

Senator McCain’s energy policy can be summarized in one word: more. More oil (for transportation), more natural gas, more renewables and much more nuclear power–45 new plants, in fact, by 2030. Compare this vision, by contrast, to the DOE’s nuclear loan guarantee program, which could support perhaps two or three new plants to come on-line by 2017. McCain’s energy plan is also replete with commitments to climate change legislation, an issue on which he has been a leader for many years in the Senate.

Senator Obama’s positions on electricity are more nuanced. He is a strong advocate of renewables, supporting a federal renewable portfolio standard of 10 percent by 2012 and a long-term extension of the federal production tax credit (five years). He is also committed to demand response, energy efficiency and “decoupling” utility profits from energy consumption.

His endorsement of new nuclear power plants and coal plants, however, is more equivocated than Sen. McCain’s. With regard to nuclear, he supports expansion, but not before “key issues” such as security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage, and proliferation are addressed. Similarly, with regard to coal, he is silent on actual coal plant development but supportive of “incentives to accelerate private investment in commercial zero-carbon coal facilities.” By process of elimination, Sen. Obama appears bullish only on energy efficiency and renewables.

The only common thread to these disparate visions of the future of electric power is renewable energy, although the nation may well need more than just renewables to meet its goals of increased capacity and cleaner emissions. Campaign seasons are notoriously bad times for intelligent policy debates, particularly where the price tag for many of these lofty objectives is so high. As the new president and the new Congress get down to the task of actually tackling these issues next year, one hopes that all options will be on the table and that the slogans and ephemeral silver bullets of the 2008 election are replaced with the tougher but more lasting content of a genuine energy policy. Failing that, the nation’s eyes will turn reluctantly to DOE Secretary Paris Hilton for guidance.


Richard Lehfeldt is a partner in Dickstein Shapiro LLP’s energy practice and Amanda Greene is a legal advisor in the energy practice. Richard Lehfeldt can be reached at and Amanda Greene at

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