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Election Matters | The Nation

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Election Matters

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In the 1960s John F. Kennedy inspired America with his pledge to put a man on the moon in ten years. Now, John F. Kerry is invoking that proud history to promote his own plan to end US dependence on Middle East oil. "This is the great project for our generation," Kerry declared in May, and his recent comments suggest it will be a major theme in the fall campaign as well. During Kerry's speech at the Democratic convention, for example, he mentioned the environment only in passing. But he spoke at length about freeing the country from Middle East oil, winning some of the strongest applause of the night by promising to rely on American "ingenuity and innovation--not the Saudi royal family."

About the Author

Mark Hertsgaard
Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent, is an independent journalist and the author of six books...

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Elevating energy over the environment is shrewd politics for Kerry. True, George Bush has compiled the worst environmental record in modern American history, while Kerry has earned a 96 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters, a nonpartisan group in Washington that has now endorsed him. But the Kerry campaign recognizes that the environment is not a decisive issue for most voters. According to Gallup's Earth Day poll, the environment ranks eighth among issues the voting public worries "a great deal" about--behind healthcare, terrorism, the economy, illegal immigration and unemployment.

So rather than hammer Bush on environmental issues per se, Kerry will send a pro-environment--and pro-economic--message by talking about energy independence. Building a "New Energy Economy" based on improved efficiency and rapid development of solar, wind, hydrogen and other renewable fuels, Kerry claims, will generate half a million jobs over ten years and give US firms leadership in some of the world's most profitable industries. It will also strengthen national security. In their newly released book, Our Plan for America, Kerry and running mate John Edwards call ending US dependence on Middle East oil one of the four most urgent challenges facing the nation (along with defeating terrorism, stopping the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and promoting democracy, freedom and opportunity around the world). No other domestic issue is given such prominence. Dependence on Middle East oil, Kerry and Edwards argue, threatens US security because it leaves the economy reliant on "authoritarian regimes...that do not always share all of our key interests." Stressing energy independence, in short, enables Kerry to criticize Bush on both the environment and Iraq--"Let's insure that no young American soldier will have to fight and die because of our dependence on foreign oil"--while also proposing an economic solution likely to please labor and capital alike.

Call it the 2020 plan. Kerry wants the United States to derive 20 percent of both its motor fuel and its electricity from domestic, renewable fuel sources by 2020. By no means would that end US dependence on foreign oil, but it would be a big step in the right direction. To get there, Kerry proposes to spend $30 billion over ten years on a mix of tax incentives, federal R&D and public-private partnerships. Significantly, he recognizes that improving energy efficiency, though not sexy, is the quickest and cheapest source of new energy. His plan calls for reducing the federal government's energy consumption by 20 percent while challenging the private and nonprofit sectors to do the same, with help from federal tax incentives.

Because transportation accounts for 70 percent of America's oil consumption, any serious alternative must confront the nation's addiction to automobiles. As Kerry points out, it's impossible for the United States to drill its way to energy independence, as Bush seems to intend: This nation has only 3 percent of the world's oil reserves but accounts for nearly 25 percent of demand. Instead, Kerry says he will "update and strengthen" fuel efficiency standards. But in a potential warning sign to clean-energy advocates, Kerry has backed off what he supported as a senator: demanding that Detroit's vehicles meet 36 miles per gallon efficiency standards. For that stick Kerry now substitutes a carrot: $10 billion over ten years to subsidize consumers, autoworkers and manufacturers as they transition to making and buying fuel-efficient vehicles. Hybrids are the most popular technology today, but Kerry wants 100,000 hydrogen-fueled vehicles on the road by 2010 and 2.5 million by 2020. As for electricity, Kerry will pursue his 20 percent green-energy goal by expanding the government's existing tax credits for wind and biomass to include all forms of renewable fuels. In a proposal likely to play well in critical Midwestern swing states, he touts electricity produced from wind and biomass--that is, agricultural waste products--as attractive cash crops for financially strapped farmers.

All this will be music to the ears of environmentalists, as are most of the positions Kerry has taken on explicitly environmental issues. As one of his first acts in office, he says, he will reinstate the Clinton-era roadless rule in national forests, which Bush has undermined. He will also prohibit logging of old-growth trees, reverse Bush's rollback of the Clean Air Act, ban snowmobiles and jet skis from national parks, boost funding for environmental enforcement and reform the 1872 law that allows corporate miners to pay literally pennies for extraction rights on federal land, which he has called "a national disgrace." Kerry even promises to "promote environmental justice" by reviving the keystone environmental principle of "polluter pays." As such, he would restore the tax on chemical corporations that finances the federal Superfund program charged with cleaning up toxic waste sites, often found in nonwhite, low-income communities. These sites' cleanup slowed to a crawl after Bush refused to reauthorize the tax in 2002.

But Kerry is no environmental saint. He and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, own five luxury homes and an SUV--accoutrements of a high-consumption lifestyle at odds with environmental sustainability. He even told a Missouri audience that buying "a great big SUV is terrific, terrific. That's America." Indeed. Kerry also voted against the Kyoto Protocol on global warming as a senator and continues to oppose it as a presidential candidate. "I would reopen the negotiating process, fix the flaws and move forward," Kerry told Amanda Griscom of the online magazine Grist in his most extensive environmental interview as a candidate. (By flaws, Kerry means Kyoto's failure to require immediate greenhouse reductions from China and other fast-growing developing nations.) He favors expanded investment in biotechnology, anathema to many environmentalists. Bowing to electoral realities in West Virginia and Midwestern swing states, Kerry's energy plan budgets $10 billion to develop "clean coal," a technology most environmentalists dismiss as a wasteful chimera. And he supports vastly increased natural gas production, including a pipeline to move 35 trillion cubic feet of reserves from Alaska to the Lower 48 states.

Still, virtually all of America's environmental organizations will back Kerry in November because he is obviously preferable to Bush. The big question about Kerry is whether he will turn out to be another Al Gore: a politician who genuinely comprehends the immense environmental dangers and opportunities facing human civilization but who shrinks from doing much about them for fear of antagonizing powerful interests. How Kerry confronts this challenge will become clear only if he wins in November. It's easy to look good when you're running against the worst environmental President in history. Taking on the powers that be is a lot harder, even from inside the Oval Office.

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