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Obama, McCain Differ On Energy Policy

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Senator Barack Obama is calling for a 1,000-dollar tax rebate to help American families pay their rising energy bills. Mr. Obama would pay for the 65-billion-dollar plan with a new windfall profits tax on oil companies. The Democrat's proposal comes at a time when his Republican rival for president, John McCain, has apparently been scoring points with his plan to expand offshore oil drilling. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: You don't need polling data to know that John McCain's offshore drilling proposal is hitting pay dirt. You just need an applause meter. McCain got a standing ovation this week when he discussed his plan during a town hall meeting in Racine, Wisconsin.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): We must begin immediately in drilling offshore so we can get some of the oil that's off our own coast.

(Soundbite of applause)

Senator MCCAIN: We have to begin that drilling, and Senator Obama opposes it.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

HORSLEY: Never mind that most energy experts say it would take years for offshore drilling to produce significant new oil. Severin Borenstein directs the energy center at UC Berkeley.

Dr. SEVERIN BORENSTEIN (Director, University of California Energy Institute): Exploration off the United States' coastlines will produce oil and natural gas out in the future, but in the very short term it will have no effect at all. Even in the longer term, it's going to be a pretty small hit on the world oil market. And so the price reductions we'd see, even five or 10 years from now, from the additional oil would be very, very small.

HORSLEY: Obama made the same point this week in Grand Rapids, Iowa, where he said McCain's plan is backed by the same oil interests that helped shape energy policy under President Bush.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Although it won't save you dollars at the pump, I have to say that it has helped raise campaign dollars. Because last month, Senator McCain raised more than a million dollars from, guess who?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Senator OBAMA: Oil and gas executives. That's not a strategy designed to end our energy crisis. It's a strategy designed to get politicians through an election.

HORSLEY: If that's so, there are signs the strategy is working. Recent Quinnipiac University poll showed McCain gaining ground on Obama in half a dozen key swing states. Even in Florida, where voters have been fiercely protective of their shoreline, 60 percent now support more offshore drilling.

Mr. PETER BROWN (Assistant Director, Quinnipiac University Polling Institute): Offshore drilling is much more acceptable than it used to be, and it's obvious because of four-dollar gasoline.

HORSLEY: Peter Brown, who helps run the Quinnipiac poll, say Americans' frustration with high gas prices gives McCain an opening to address what has been one of his biggest problems.

Mr. BROWN: His biggest problem is that Americans think that Barack Obama is better able to fix the economy. The potential for the energy issue to give Senator McCain an opportunity to convince Americans that he does know how to fix the economy is very real. It could very much change the dynamic of this race.

HORSLEY: McCain has also called for a big expansion of nuclear power, and he wants to invest two billion dollars a year in cleaner-burning coal technology despite his general resistance to government meddling in the economy.

Senator, you've said you don't want the federal government to pick winners and losers in the energy sector. Why then spend two billion on clean coal?

Senator MCCAIN: Well, because we know clean coal is a winner.

HORSLEY: Coal provides about half the nation's electricity. Obama meanwhile has called for big federal investments in alternative power sources and a push to use energy more efficiently. After a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed an energy compromise yesterday, Obama said he'd be willing to support limited offshore drilling if that's what it takes to achieve the other elements of his plan. A spokesman for McCain said he welcomes the growing bipartisan support for McCain's comprehensive energy approach. Scott Horsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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