McCain, Obama Policy Advisors Debate Future of U.S. Energy

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Former Director of the C.I.A. R. James Woolsey (left) and executive director of the National Commission on Energy Policy Jason Grumet debate energy policy as campaign surrogates for U.S. Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama (respectively) at Kresge Auditorium on Monday evening.
Frank M. Yaul

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: The Tuesday, Oct. 7 article “McCain, Obama Policy Advisors Debate Future of U.S. Energy” incorrectly quoted a Barack Obama surrogate as saying that Obama’s energy plan called for the removal of all energy subsidies. He supports the revocation of existing subsidies for oil companies — not for all companies.

Representatives from the Obama and McCain campaign faced off in last night’s presidential energy debate, co-sponsored by the MIT Energy Initiative and the MIT Energy Club. Both Jason Grumet, adviser to Obama, and James Woolsey, adviser to McCain, agreed that the US must reduce its oil dependence, but argued over financing a transition away from oil.

Moderated by Tom Ashbrook of the NPR talk show “On Point,” the debate focused on energy security, challenges related to the climate, and energy supply and demand.

Woolsey, who directed the Central Intelligence Agency under the Clinton administration, said that the McCain plan allows states to decide how to switch to alternative energy.

Obama’s plan is more detailed, and outlines a centralized plan for greening the energy supply, according to Grumet, executive Director of the National Commission on Energy Policy. Obama’s plan will invest $15 billion into renewable energy research, adding to the $2.5 billion currently being spent.

Although McCain strongly supports local decision making in regards to energy policy manifestation, Woolsey noted that McCain is opposing his own platform with his detailed proposal for the federal government to manage the construction of forty-five nuclear power plants.

While both representatives agreed that the country’s dependence on foreign oil poses security risks, Grumet said that the industry must be urged to switch to breakthrough fuels by forcing fuel economy standards to increase by about one mile per gallon a year.

Woolsey agreed that oil alternatives such as biofuels are the future, but argued that oil will still be relevant in the near future — along with all the political and economic issues attached. He promoted McCain’s domestic offshore drilling policy, which he said would help take money out of the pockets of oil dictators.

Grumet said Obama has other plans for reducing energy dependence, including the production of 60 million gallons of advanced biofuels and commitments to increasing efficiency, such as maintaining optimum tire pressures.

Other topics that dominated the debate included the various technologies that could be transitioned into. The electricity grid came up as an area requiring immediate improvement. “We have a dumb grid. We have a grid that does not tap the power of the sunny and windy cities of the country,” said Grumet. Instead of a power grid that uses new electricity technologies, the current system has numerous security vulnerabilities and lacks in protection against isolated incidents of power outages that can disable the grid over large areas, such as the August 14th, 2003 East Coast blackout.

“We have to make the grid far more resilient. We have a lot to do and the grid is a key part of that,” said Woolsey. Grumet mentioned that Obama would invest in the Smart Grid, a novel system that significantly improves the security against terrorist attacks and would facilitate the solar and wind-based production of electricity.

While the presidential candidates support the implementation of a national cap and trade program that limits pollution by forcing companies to pay for exceeding the cap and rewarding companies that stay under, Grumet also said, “We have to pull technologies forward with neutral performance standards and support regulations with significant incentives” that will encourage new energy industries to flourish.

According to Grumet, Obama believes that new technology will never triumph unless all subsidies are retracted and the resources are diverted toward backing new technology. Following a less drastic approach, Woolsey said, “McCain supports reducing subsidies for fossil-fuel based technology.”

The economic crisis became intertwined with the energy debate as well. Grumet believes that new energy technologies will “form the backbone for economic recovery.” Obama’s $15 billion investment will provide more jobs and serve as a stimulus for an economic comeback. Woolsey explained that “Drill, Baby Drill” endeavor will reduce the country’s financial dependence and has the potential to increase jobs.

Although cries for reducing energy dependence have been echoed over the years, the country’s dependence on oil hasn’t changed.

“Despite promises of energy independence, we become more dependent. A successful president will bend those curves, and at the end of the Obama presidency we will be using less oil than before and be creating less carbon than before,” said Grumet.