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Drilling down on McCain, Obama energy plans

Both presidential candidates tout clean energy with images of wind turbines and solar panels in advertisements. New Energy Finance analyzes their plans and voting records.

The two presidential candidates' energy policies fall along philosophical lines, with Sen. John McCain calling to scale back government ethanol policy and Sen. Barack Obama promising expanded support for renewable energy, according to an analysis published Wednesday.

After examining voting records and public statements, research firm New Energy Finance concluded that there are significant differences between the energy stances of Democratic candidate Obama and Republican candidate McCain.

A McCain White House would favor free-market economics and rein in the role of federal government policy on energy. Obama, meanwhile, would seek a more active role for government in promoting the clean energy industry.

"The fiscally conservative, small government-minded McCain has long eschewed subsidies, earmarks, and heavy regulation, and his energy policy is no exception," according to the report. "By contrast, liberal Obama prefers to have the federal government take a more direct role in the U.S. energy sector."

A summary of the presidential candidates' energy policies, with Barack Obama favoring support of the clean energy industry and John McCain calling for less government assistance. Click to enlarge. New Energy Finance

McCain is opposed to existing federal government ethanol production targets and has said that he would eliminate a tariff on Brazilian ethanol, a move which would expose U.S. producers to more competition.

He also advocates expanded domestic oil drilling and a massive increase in nuclear power plant construction, with the goal of building 45 new reactors by 2030.

In sharp contrast to McCain, Obama's voting record has been solidly behind the renewable energy industry. A Senate effort last year to extend an investment tax credit around solar and wind energy projects failed to pass by one vote; McCain did not vote.

Obama has voted for the investment tax credit, set to lapse at the end of this year, and favors a renewable portfolio standard (RPS), which would mandate that utilities generate 25 percent clean energy by 2025.

Obama supports the continued ethanol mandate and has called for more aggressive fuel-efficiency standards. Obama has not ruled out further expansion of nuclear power but his support is pending new technology development for storage of nuclear wastes, according to New Energy Finance.

Where both candidates align is on the question of regulating greenhouse gas emissions, with both advocating a cap-and-trade system although different methods for auctioning off polluting rights.

Both have proposed expanded research into so-called clean coal technology for storing carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants underground. And both favor tax breaks for fuel-efficient cars.

Regardless of the outcome, U.S. citizens can expect energy and environment to be a center-stage issue during the fall presidential campaign, although paying for any policies once in office will be a challenge.

New Energy Finance applauds various aspects of both candidates policies but argues that McCain's is "incorrect" in believing that the clean energy industry is mature enough to thrive with relatively little government assistance.

Meanwhile, Obama has garnered the support of a number of clean-tech investors because of his policies; high-profile clean energy venture capitalist Nancy Floyd spoke at the Democratic National Convention and endorsed Obama.

New Energy Finance CEO Michael Liebreich summarized their policies this way:

"We expect either a President Obama or a President McCain to pursue more vigorous policies on clean energy and emission reductions than President Bush has done for the last eight years. Obama is arguably being more imaginative, but he is also taking more of a centrally planned approach. McCain's regional approach, and in particular his insistence on tariff reductions, has much to recommend it. But neither candidate has yet put forward a fully comprehensive plan, and we are hoping to see them developing their policies more completely--particularly towards the encouragement of renewable power generation and energy efficiency--during the final few weeks of the campaign."