For Presidential Candidates, Energy not a Hot Topic

Even as the price of crude oil soars past $50 a barrel and the cost of gas at the pump passes $2 a gallon, details of the candidates' energy policy initiatives have done little more than bubble in the 2004 presidential campaign.

Oct. 25—Even as the price of crude oil soars past $50 a barrel and the cost of gas at the pump passes $2 a gallon, details of the candidates' energy policy initiatives have done little more than bubble in the 2004 presidential campaign.

While President Bush and challenger Sen. John Kerry talk about easing dependence on foreign energy sources, their policy approaches differ in the details — and the details have been sparse.

In speeches in some swing states, Kerry has sought to blame Bush for high gasoline prices, but the policy differences between the candidates have remained largely relegated to policy papers on their Web sites.

Campaign watchers with longer memories are puzzled.

"You'd think Kerry would make more of high gas prices, but I guess he's been warned away from anything that sounds like populist politics," said Charlie Peters, founder of The Washington Monthly and a political historian whose career dates back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration.

The two candidates actually agree on a number of issues.

Both would spend money for research into alternative energy sources, particularly hydrogen fuel cells that are thought to be the most likely successors to gasoline to power automobiles.

Each would also spend money for clean coal technologies, as well as research on using the nation's abundant coal supplies to produce methane and liquid fuels. Bush promises to lead the "FutureGen Initiative," a public-private partnership to create what his campaign says would be "the world's first zero-emissions coal-based power plant."

The clean coal plans are particularly sensitive in the Appalachian regions, whose mainstay coal industries have been threatened by the cleaner coals in Wyoming and Montana that utilities have turned to in order to meet emission standards.

Oil at home and abroad Bush also joins Kerry in supporting the Alaska natural gas pipeline, a $20 billion proposal that would be built by major multinational companies. But ExxonMobil, which would be one of the participants in the project, has balked at the cost and at the idea of working as part of a government project.

Energy industry leaders haven't spoken out, but the proclamation of "energy independence" by both candidates draws widespread snickers in the oil patch. The United States holds just 3 percent of the world's known oil reserves, producing 5.7 million barrels of oil a day against a daily demand of 22 million barrels. U.S. production peaked in 1986 and has declined almost 40 percent since then.

Bush has put forth an energy bill made up largely of tax incentives aimed at exploration and production companies. The plan also proposes drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and seeks to standardize the nation's electrical grid. It also would continue tax benefits to buyers of hybrid electric/gasoline automobiles.

But the Bush bill has languished in the Republican-controlled Congress this year, held up by the insistence by U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, that makers of the antipollutant additive MTBE be made immune from lawsuits. MTBE, once widely used to control exhaust emissions, is now thought to be toxic.

Bush also supports building more oil refineries and developing facilities for the importation of liquefied natural gas to make up for expected domestic shortages. The issue is expected to draw more political heat in coming years because of not-in-my-backyard sentiment over the huge storage terminals. This year, residents on the East Coast have rejected two proposals for major terminals there.

Bush has drawn most criticism from Democrats by aggressively filling the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which holds about a 30-day supply of crude in salt domes in southeast Texas and Louisiana.

Democrats say the government's purchases of crude have put more upward pressure on prices.

Bush has also supported plans to update the nation's electrical grid, a scheme fraught with political risk because of regional differences in electricity costs. The plan was proposed in the aftermath of the summer blackout that struck the northeastern United States last year.

The president wants to help nuclear power make a comeback, but the energy section of his campaign platform is vague other than to "ensure a future for nuclear power as a viable and emission-free energy source."

Kerry and the Democrats oppose Bush's plan to drill in the Alaska wilderness and instead promote "energy independence" through subsidizing new hydrogen fuel technologies.

In contrast to Bush, Kerry would impose strict new fuel efficiency standards on automakers. He warns of the danger of imported liquefied natural gas, preferring a pipeline from Alaska's North Slope to carry natural gas to the lower 48 states.

Kerry would also set a goal to have 20 percent of U.S. energy come from renewable sources, such as sun and wind power, by 2020.

Even with the number of issues that the candidates differ on, and the high prices of gasoline, there has — so far — been little talk about energy issues in the debate.

The issue was absent from the third debate, the campaigns' only scheduled forum devoted exclusively to domestic issues.

That may be because voters do not rate it highly.

As the Nov. 2 election approaches, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll indicated that 50 percent of Americans put the war in Iraq and terrorism ahead of energy issues, and 39 percent put other domestic issues ahead of energy.

Chuck Todd, editor of The Hotline, a Washington-based political newsletter, said: "I've been surprised a bit that high gas prices haven't hurt Bush more. But politicians seem to realize there's not much they can do about energy prices, so they're staying away from it."

Some of the apparent reticence may come from cues learned from the last candidate to make energy prices and energy policy a major campaign issue: Jimmy Carter.

A quarter-century ago, Carter declared energy reform the "moral equivalent of war." He was rewarded by lines at the gas pumps and a doubling of prices, which in turn fed double-digit inflation. Voters took out their frustration by putting Ronald Reagan in the White House.

"Jimmy Carter was the last president to really take on energy, and politicians saw what happened to him," Jody Powell, formerly Carter's press secretary and now a Washington public relations executive, said last week. "George Bush hasn't done much for energy, but neither has anybody else. The energy issue can be bitter political medicine, and nobody wants to take it."

But while "energy independence" is no closer now than during Carter's embattled campaign, the United States has at least shifted much of its import dependence away from the turbulent Middle East.

Saudi Arabia provides less than 12 percent of U.S. imports, compared with almost 70 percent imported from Western Hemisphere nations: Venezuela, Mexico and Canada.

Because automobile engines are more fuel-efficient than in the late 1970s, and because heavy industries and utilities have switched from fuel oils to natural gas and coal, oil price increases have had less power to touch off the double-digit inflation that accompanied the last two years of Carter's term.

Energy concerns are big Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan helped blunt the issue when he declared a week ago that while high oil prices would slow economic growth and add to the financial burdens of middle- and lower-middle-class Americans, the effect wouldn't be as traumatic as in 1980.

The candidates, too, seem to realize that the complexity of energy issues — and the relative lack of politically palatable alternatives — argues in favor of less attention rather than more.

Mark Baxter, director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said "there seems to be an agreement among the politicians that energy is a time bomb."

The energy issue is potentially a greater problem for Bush, Baxter says, not only because of high prices but also because of Bush's ties to energy industry executives who tend to support Republicans.

Even so, Kerry has yet to make the bashing of "Big Oil" a centerpiece of his campaign.

Baxter says that another reason presidential candidates don't put energy front and center is because they have learned that high prices do more to promote energy conservation and increased production than any government program.

"The most the federal government can do is offer incentives, usually in the form of tax breaks," says Baxter. "But incentives tend to be less important to stimulate production than $50 oil and $6 natural gas. And we tend to conserve more when prices go up."

Amnesia plays a role, too.

"Americans have the memory of a gnat," Peters said. "As soon as a 'crisis' passes, we go back to consuming more and buying bigger cars. We can't help ourselves."

IN THE KNOW: Bush and Kerry energy plans
—Drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Bush for, Kerry against.
—Liquefied natural gas imports: Bush for, Kerry against.
—Alaska to lower-48 natural gas pipeline: Both favor.
—Vehicle mileage: Kerry favors increased mandatory standards, Bush emphasizes more hybrid technology.
—Fuel cell development: Both favor.
—New refineries: Bush in favor, Kerry no position — Tax incentives for oil company exploration: Both in favor.
—Strategic Petroleum Reserve: Kerry criticizes Bush's decision to "unnecessarily" fill the reserve, taking crude oil off the market.

© 2004, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.