Coverage of Barack Obama's New Energy for America speech was dominated by a minor flip-flop: Namely, that he would swap out sweet light crude held in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for cheaper heavy crude in order to flood the market with a little extra supply and hopefully drive down prices at the pump.
But anyone who isn't a policy wonk may have lost sight of the larger Obama energy plan at this point. With all the talk about high gas prices, short-term initiatives like uncorking the Strategic Oil Reserve or opening up additional offshore areas for oil and natural gas drilling which experts universally say will have a limited effect on price now or even a decade from now are masking a larger, and more important, debate.
That question: Where will America get its fuel and electricity from in the coming decades, as global warming continues to unleash the consequences of our rampant fossil fuel consumption, and as the oil supply continues to be dominated by sources controlled by OPEC?
The oil reserves and drilling for offshore oil are at the margins of Obama's energy plan. The main text is about moving the country away from fossil fuels, increasing efficiency and investing in renewable energy technologies. John McCain's plan has a greater focus on increasing the supply of energy, by drilling for oil offshore and by building new nuclear power plants. (Obama said recently he would allow some new offshore drilling as a compromise if necessary to achieve an energy policy that fit his larger goals.)
In reality, neither is likely to achieve everything in his plan if elected president. But the overall thrust of the nation's energy policy toward investing in renewable energy and efficiency, or increasing supply is the choice voters face.
(It's worth noting that neither plan approaches Al Gore's call to wean the country off carbon-based fuel for electricity within 10 years; Obama would improve efficiency and boost the use of renewables to 10% of electricity production in that time frame, but going carbon-free is hardly on the agenda.)
The historians of the future will have many presidents to look back on and criticize for failing to forestall the 21st-century energy crisis and failing to confront global warming. Both McCain and Obama are staring the crisis in the face.
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