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Candidates agree on clean tech, differ on details

The picture on energy policy is getting a bit more clear at two events this week: Obama and McCain's town hall debate and another between their energy advisers at MIT.

When it comes to energy policy, both presidential candidates want carbon regulations, better efficiency, and more renewable energy. The biggest differences lie in emphasis--drilling, nuclear energy--and what role the federal government should play.

During the second presidential debate on Tuesday, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama both cited the need for more clean, or green, technologies to reduce the country's oil consumption and address climate change.

On Monday night, a separate debate focused specifically on energy policy was hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Former CIA chief and clean-tech investor R. James Woolsey represented the McCain camp. Jason Grumet, founder of the Bipartisan Policy Center, spoke for the Obama side.

Both events provide a bit more clarity on what the candidates might do, once in office.

During the presidential debate (transcript) on Tuesday, energy was a frequent topic and tightly linked to a hoped-for economic recovery around new energy industries.

McCain once again came out strongly for rapidly expanding domestic offshore drilling and a massive build-out of nuclear power.

In response to a question about climate change, McCain touted his early commitment to the issue, plus a climate change bill he proposed with Sen. Joe Lieberman. The bill ultimately failed to become law.

"Now, how--what's--what's the best way of fixing (climate change)? Nuclear power," he said.

Later, McCain said the United States should have a more diverse set of energy sources:

"We can work on nuclear-power plants. Build a whole bunch of them, create millions of new jobs. We have to have all of the above: alternative fuels, wind, tide, solar, natural gas, clean-coal technology. All of these things we can do as Americans, and we can take on this mission, and we can overcome it."

In the Tuesday debate, Obama came out stronger on nuclear energy than he has in the past, according to He also agreed with McCain on the need for more domestic drilling but noted that the United States holds a small percentage of the world's oil reserves and that the country "can't drill our way out of the oil problem."

Obama's response to the climate change question:

"It is absolutely critical that we understand this is not just a challenge; it's an opportunity because if we create a new energy economy, we can create 5 million new jobs, easily, here in the United States. It can be an engine that drives us into the future the same way the computer was the engine for economic growth over the last couple of decades. And we can do it, but we're going to have to make an investment.

Digging one level down
Unlike the sharp attacks in the presidential and vice-presidential debates, Monday's debate on energy policy at MIT with Woolsey and Grumet was more congenial.

On the whole, Grumet cited planks from Obama's detailed energy plan, which the Illinois senator unveiled earlier this year. Woolsey spoke in broad strokes on McCain's energy plan, as well as on his criticisms of Obama's plan.

"What we have here, with some exceptions, are two responsible energy programs," Woolsey said. "Centralization and central control is a difference here."

McCain adviser James Woolsey argues a point while Obama adviser Jason Grumet listens during an MIT-hosted debate on energy policy. Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks

Woolsey cited examples of the federal government favoring energy-related technologies, or companies in research projects, that failed.

Grumet's criticism of the McCain plan is that it lacked enough information to truly judge. He said its "drill, baby, drill" slogan is focused on the past, not the future.

Another difference is McCain's choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as vice presidential candidate. Palin has touted her experience in introducing more competition into oil and gas company operations in Alaska.

"Sen. McCain's assertion that his vice president, Gov. Palin, would be handling energy policy in this country is a profound difference because Sen. Obama would make this a personal priority," Grumet said, adding that an Obama presidency would respect the scientific process when making environmental policy.

When describing McCain's policy, Woolsey said the top item is a cap-and-trade program in which large polluters such as utilities would need to purchase pollution rights, which can be bought and sold.

McCain supports a transition to alcohol fuels such as ethanol, as well as battery-powered cars, to replace oil as the fuel for transportation. He has proposed a $300 million contest for the best electric-car battery.

He has called for the construction of 45 new nuclear plants in the next 20 years--a goal that Woolsey admitted is difficult to achieve.

Woolsey said Obama's plan is more detailed. But he said that reflects the overall philosophy of McCain, who intends to give states leeway to implement policy.

"Sen. McCain believes in general direction," he said. "It should stick to a general direction, such as cap and trade, and leave the detailed manifestations of standards and so forth--which type of renewable fuels and so on--up to local decision making."

At the federal level, Grumet said Obama supports a renewable portfolio standard, a mandate already in place in several states that would require utilities to get 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources such as solar, wind, or geothermal by 2025.

On fuels, he said the U.S. should adopt a low-carbon standard, in which ethanol and biodiesel are measured on the total carbon emissions, from production to consumption. Corn ethanol has been criticized because its net carbon emissions are similar to gasoline, while ethanol from wood chips, grasses, or wastes is better in that regard.

Obama has proposed spending $15 billion per year for 10 years on energy programs, such as efficiency and research. This would be paid for by auctioning polluting rights in a federal cap-and-trade carbon emissions regime. Grumet also said Obama believes that scaling back subsidies to oil companies should help fund clean-energy industries.

"We have to pull these technologies forward with neutral performance standards, like a renewable portfolio standard that doesn't say how you have to make low-carbon energy. But it does say that you must make it. And we have to support those regulations with significant incentives," Grumet said.

As part of the recently passed bailout bill, subsidies for renewable energy were extended at the last minute. The law renews tax credits for solar power for eight years and for wind for one year. Also included is a tax credit for people who purchase a plug-in vehicle, an idea that both candidates had previously backed.