McCain energy record is on/off

He's flip-flopped on nuclear power, ethanol and offshore drilling.

July 01, 2008|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Crisscrossing the country over the last two weeks to promote his energy plans, Sen. John McCain promised a forceful national strategy to combat global warming and end U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

"We must steer far clear of the errors and false assumptions that have marked the energy policies of nearly 20 Congresses and seven presidents," the presumptive Republican nominee told a crowd of oil executives in Houston.

But McCain's record of tackling energy policy on Capitol Hill shows little of the clear direction he says would come from a McCain White House.

Instead, the Arizona senator has swerved from one position to another over the years, taking often contradictory stances on the federal government's role in energy policy.

At times he has backed measures to ease restrictions on oil drilling off the coast and in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Other times he has voted to keep them.

He has championed standards to require that automakers make vehicles more fuel-efficient, yet opposed standards to require that utilities use less fossil fuel by generating more power from renewable sources, such as wind and solar.

McCain has rejected federal tax breaks for renewable energy producers, but backs billions of dollars in subsidies for the nuclear industry.

He has criticized corn-based ethanol for doing "nothing to increase our energy independence." Yet while campaigning in 2006 in the Midwest corn belt, McCain called ethanol a "vital, vital alternative energy source."

Senior McCain policy advisor Douglas Holtz-Eakin said McCain's positions reflected a pragmatic approach to governing. "Sen. McCain is interested in getting results," he said.

But many environmentalists see it as inconsistency. "There is a very sporadic pattern here," said Tim Greef, deputy legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters.

McCain has shown more interest in confronting global warming than most of his GOP colleagues, a facet of his record that has helped shape his image as a straight-talking maverick who stands up to his party.

A self-proclaimed acolyte of former Democratic Rep. Morris K. Udall of Arizona, the legendary environmental lawmaker, McCain was among the first Republicans to call for action by the federal government.

In 2002, he collaborated with Democrats on legislation to require automakers to increase vehicle fuel efficiency. And he has broken with his party to push legislation to create a federal system for capping greenhouse gases.

At the same time, McCain became a vocal critic of government subsidies, particularly for oil and gas producers. In a debate, he derided the 2003 energy bill for "increasing our dependence on conventional fuels" and was one of six GOP senators to oppose it.

But the senator's legislative work on energy and climate change is also full of contradictions. McCain -- who argues the federal government should not be "picking favorites" -- has routinely backed federal subsidies for some energy producers but not others.

While McCain has talked tough about giveaways for oil companies, for example, he has only occasionally challenged the industry.

In 2003 and 2005, McCain criticized his colleagues for giving tax breaks to oil producers. "It doesn't make fiscal or common sense," he said in one debate, "to provide billions of taxpayer subsidies to encourage the production of energy by companies that are already gaining tremendous riches at today's sky-high oil and gas prices."

He has also acted to protect the industry's bottom line. In 1999, McCain backed efforts to prevent the Interior Department from collecting more royalties from oil companies drilling on public land.

The department wanted payments to reflect the market price of oil, a change that could have boosted receipts by an estimated $60 million a year or more.

Six years later, after rejecting offshore drilling, he voted for legislation that opened up large sections of the Gulf of Mexico to exploration, a major industry priority.

Holtz-Eakin said McCain believed that states should have the authority to decide whether there was drilling along their coastlines. (In contrast, McCain voted to deny governors authority to veto liquefied natural gas terminals in their states.)

McCain announced two weeks ago that he favored more oil exploration off the nation's coasts to bring down the cost of gasoline. "We must deal with the here and now," he said.

On his recent energy tour, McCain also called for 45 new nuclear plants by 2030, a goal he is prepared to back with billions of federal dollars.

That too is a change for the four-term senator. Earlier in his congressional career, McCain was a consistent opponent of subsidies for nuclear power, voting five times in the 1990s against taxpayer aid for research on new-generation nuclear reactors. As recently as 2003, McCain opposed federal loan guarantees to help the nuclear industry finance new plants.

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