How Green Are the Presidential Candidates?

Posted on Wednesday 24th September 2008
This year’s Presidential election will be historic regardless of the winner.  As you well know, our country will either have its first African-American President or the first female Vice President.  Both Presidential candidates are preaching that we will see a change with their policies. As well, both candidates talk about our need to become energy independent and reduce or even fully eliminate our dependence on foreign oil. While their overall goals are similar, their tactics are different. Energy legislation is layered with ‘political’ posturing and nuances like the number of miles offshore for drilling, tax implications for oil companies and tax credit opportunities for homeowners and businesses. So, the legislation itself does not always reflect the complete view of a candidate’s positions. To help you better understand where Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama stand on energy and environmental policy, here is a breakdown of their views to date on the key ‘Green’ issues:


  • McCain calls for lifting the federal ban on offshore oil drilling in new areas.
  • Obama generally opposes opening additional U.S. waters to offshore oil drilling, but he does not rule it out entirely if it is considered as part of a comprehensive energy plan that includes incentives for renewable energy. 

Note on Drilling:  The 40-year old ban prohibits offshore drilling within 200 miles along both coasts. Some studies show that more than 80 percent of known oil reserves are inside the 50-mile limit.

Emissions Standards:

  • McCain supports a cap-and-trade system to cut U.S. emissions 60% below 1990 levels by 2050. He would give away many emission credits at the start of his plan, though down the line he would phase in auctions of such credits and would allow domestic and international offsets as a form of compliance. 
  • Obama supports a cap-and-trade system to cut U.S. emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 and would auction off 100% of emission credits, making polluters pay for the right to emit greenhouse gases. 

Fuel Economy Standards:

  • McCain says that he would more effectively enforce existing fuel-economy standards.
  • Obama supports raising fuel-economy standards 4% (about one mile per gallon each year) and proposes spending $4 billion to help U.S. automakers improve their plants to produce more efficient cars and trucks. 

Note on Fuel Economy. You may have heard the term (CAFE) Standards. It is the Corporate Average Fuel Economy that is the sales weighted average fuel economy, expressed in miles per gallon (mpg), of a manufacturer’s fleet of passenger cars or light trucks with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 8,500 lbs. or less, manufactured for sale in the United States, for any given model year.


  • McCain calls for building 45 new nuclear power plants in the U.S. by 2030, ultimately increasing to 100 new plants and calls for government support for the nuclear industry.  He believes that this plan can generate 700,000 new jobs.
  • Obama has said that we should explore nuclear power as part of the energy mix, but has said nuclear power is not a great option because of problems with safety and storage and because it usually requires big government subsidies.  Obama has opposed storing and reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.


  • McCain supports "clean coal”, proposing spending $2 billion a year to help develop clean-coal technologies. 
  • Obama supports coal-to-liquid fuels if they emit 20% less carbon over their lifecycle than conventional fuels and says he would use "whatever tools are necessary to stop new dirty coal plants from being built in America including a ban on new traditional coal facilities." 


  • McCain supports increase in the use of biofules but has not offered specific targets.  He opposes subsidies for ethanol. 
  • Obama calls for 60 billion gallons of "advanced biofuels" like cellulosic ethanol to be produced in the U.S. each year by 2030 and proposes federal tax incentives and other inducements to help develop the advanced biofuels. 

The Big Picture:

  • McCain speaks about Energy Independence as a means toward Energy Security. In the 9/26/08 debate he reinforced the point that, “We send over 700 Billion per year overseas to countries that don’t like us very much. Some of the money ends up in the hands of terrorist organizations. We have to have wind, solar, natural gas, flex-fuel cars and all that, but we also have to have offshore drilling and nuclear power.”
  • Obama calls for getting 10% of U.S. electricity from renewables by 2012, and 25% by 2025. In addition, Obama suggests investing $150 billion over 10 years in renewables, advanced biofuels, efficiency, and other clean tech, and says this will help create 5 million “green” jobs. 

More Insight from the Three Presidential Debates:

Three different formats did not alter the fundamental messages from the candidates or their commitment and approaches to Energy Independence. The third and final Presidential Debate on October 15th set the candidates across a table from each other, while the October 7th debate included a town hall format, and the first September 26th debate followed a more traditional podium organization structure. Given the recent financial market crisis and the 700 Billion dollar government bailout ‘rescue’, the focus naturally shifted in all of the debates to the economy and how each candidate might adjust their plans and budgets. Energy came up across every debate, because it is such an integral part of our Economy and National Security. Given the severity of the financial situation, both candidates acknowledged the need to make adjustments in their plans. Both spoke about creating efficiencies by cutting government waste. In the first debate, McCain proposed a ‘spending freeze’ on everything but defense, veterans’ affairs, and entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. Obama proposes prioritizing and adjusting the pace of aspects within each program including energy independence.

In the second debate, when asked about prioritizing the focus on major issues like Healthcare, Energy, and Entitlements, McCain spoke about addressing all three as a national priority. Obama ranked them in order of Energy, Healthcare, and then Education. On the Energy front, McCain specifically spoke about our need for Energy Independence through a combination of renewable power and adding more “Drilling and Nuclear plants that create jobs.” Obama reinforced the need to invest in a sustainable Energy initiative that would reduce American dependency on Middle Eastern Oil within a decade. Obama also added the need to address personal aspects of participation like ‘weatherizing homes and making businesses more energy efficient”.
In the third and final debate both candidates covered their energy strategies but also expressed why their Vice Presidential running mates would add value. Obama expressed that Senator Joe Biden would, “make sure that we finally get serious about energy independence.” McCain reinforced Governor Sarah Palin’s experience with energy by saying that, “she negotiated with oil companies and faced them down.”

This year it is encouraging to know that when you ask yourself, can this country move towards energy independence, reducing our dependence on foreign oil, and helping stop climate change – the answer is YES!  We have already begun creating more awareness for environmental issues and the support for finding a solution continues to grow.  Similar to the old adage that “every vote counts”, every change whether big or small that helps the environment counts in making America stronger and the world a better place.

Great ways to save energy in your own home:

Candidates on both sides of the aisle at the national and state level are talking about ‘Energy Independence’, and Philadelphia is the home of American Independence. So, we can make Greater Philadelphia the home of American Energy Independence by each taking a few small steps to make our own homes more energy efficient. Homes and buildings account for over 40% of our national energy consumption and green house gases according to the US Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency, so every house counts! For great GREENandSAVE ways to Save Money and the Environment, you can now see the actual payback on making improvements. See Energy Saving Home Improvements  

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