In primary, it's not easy being green

ON THE ISSUES : ENVIRONMENT

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There's been a lot of discussion as this primary season unwinds about which Democratic presidential candidate has more red state appeal or more blue state appeal, but little chatter about their very real "green" credentials.

The views of both Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama are many shades more verdant than those of the current inhabitant of the White House on everything from Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling (both against it), to alternative energy (both for it), to global warming (both believe it).

Instead, as the candidates have criss-crossed the commonwealth leading up to the April 22 primary -- also Earth Day -- they have been sticking to scripts that focus on the war and the economy. Their ads talk about experience, special interests and hope. They've mentioned high fuel prices and alternative energy sources -- mainly wind power and bio-fuels -- but couched them as pocketbook issues or "green collar" job generating new industries.

"I haven't heard a lot about the environment in either the large group speeches they've given or in private meetings for us super delegates," said U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless. "When I ask about what the candidates will do for our part of the state the environment is something that doesn't come up as a national issue or part of their Western Pennsylvania pitch."

It wasn't always like that. A year ago, while campaigning in Iowa, Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton urged thousands of voters at separate Earth Day-themed rallies to make the environment a top campaign issue.

"Today is Earth Day, and I personally believe every day should be Earth Day," Mrs. Clinton told a college crowd in Decorah, Iowa, where she pledged her campaign would be "carbon-neutral" and asked students, "Please use this as a voting issue."

But somewhere along the campaign trail, as mortgage, credit and stock market woes stole newscasts and front pages, the "e" word morphed from the environment to the economy.

"When the word environment comes out of the candidates' mouths, job creation has to follow," said pollster Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. "They're talking about new technology that will help the environment and create jobs. You won't get pure environmental programs coming out of the candidates in Pennsylvania.

"When we get into a shaky economy, as we are now, candidates are very careful when they mention the environment. It's all pocketbook issues now and they've pushed the environment into the background."

Mr. Madonna said he's surprised there hasn't been more talk about the broad sweep of environmental issues.

"They talk a little bit about ethanol and nuclear. They mention the environment," he said. "But both candidates have recently had big economic speeches, and you haven't heard either one give a big environmental speech."

Clay F. Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said polls show the economy and the war are the most important issues with 70 percent of Pennsylvania's voters and are dominating the campaign. The environment polls in the low single digits as a voter priority.

"The environment has been squeezed out of the discussion and frankly, it's been an oversight," Mr. Richards said. "But I also doubt there's much difference. There two candidates have a very pro-environment message and that's good news for environmentalists. But it's not an area of much contrast."

The candidates' policies on global warming -- arguably the most far-reaching and most contentious environmental issue facing the nation and the world -- are a good example.

Both support a mandatory cap on greenhouse gas emissions and energy and climate plans that aim for 80 percent emissions reductions from 1990 levels by 2050 and an increase in renewable energy use from the current 2 percent to 25 percent by 2025.

Both would invest $150 billion over 10 years in clean energy research and development. Both oppose investing in coal-to-liquid fuel technology unless it reduces carbon pollution by 20 percent -- a pull-back of support for the as yet untested technology by Mr. Obama, who represents a coal producing state.

In recognition of the United States' reliance on coal -- it's burned to generate 50 percent of the nation's electricity -- but also its role in global warming pollution, Mrs. Clinton supports a phased-in requirement to have new coal-fired utilities capture and store carbon emissions. Mr. Obama would consider a moratorium on new coal-burning facilities if a mandatory cap does not produce emissions reductions.

Mrs. Clinton would increase vehicle fuel efficiency standards to 40 miles per gallon by 2020 and 55 miles per gallon by 2030, while Mr. Obama supports a 52 mile per gallon fleet-wide standard by 2026.

Reducing electricity use is the quickest and cheapest way to reduce pollution that causes global warming and Mrs. Clinton supports a 20 percent reduction in energy consumption by 2020, while Mr. Obama wants to cut usage in half by 2030.

Both candidates support nuclear power's continued role as an energy source. Mr. Obama has received more than $150,000 from executives and employees of Illinois-based Exelon, the nation's largest nuclear power plant operator.

Officials with both campaigns privately admit that the candidates' environmental positions are closer than the delegate count, then gamely try to highlight what differences exist.

Kristin Lee, a Clinton campaign spokeswoman, said her candidate has a more ambitious target for vehicle fuel efficiency and noted Mr. Obama's unqualified support of coal-to-liquid fuel subsidies, which he's since pulled back on, and his "yes" vote on the 2005 Energy Act, which environmentalists have criticized because of its subsidies for the nuclear power and oil industries. The Clinton campaign repeatedly has used Mr. Obama's vote on the legislation to call attention to his ties to the nuclear, coal and ethanol industries.

"Hillary Clinton has a long-standing record of protecting our environment, and as president would be committed to finding real solutions on day one," Ms. Lee said. "She understands by solving global warming and investing in clean energy we can jump-start the economy and create 5 million 'green collar' jobs that can't be shipped overseas."

Jason Grumet, chairman of the Obama campaign's energy and environment policy committee, said that while the candidates' environmental policy proposals are similar, Mr. Obama is in a better position to gain consensus and carry them out.

"Climate change and oil dependence are key challenges and different from a lot of other problems. Solving them will take not just technology but a national commitment and a shared purpose," Mr. Grumet said. "This is about bringing the country together on issues that have been almost culture wars."

Mr. Grumet said Mr. Obama exhibited that leadership in his work to help pass vehicle fuel economy legislation. He said the Illinois senator supported the 2005 Energy Act, even though it wasn't perfect, because of its ethanol subsidies and because it banned the polluting fuel additive MTBE, gave tax credits to the wind industry, set bio-fuel standards and provided incentives for home and vehicle energy efficiencies. He also has supported a series of amendments to the legislation that is viewed favorably by environmentalists.

In recent weeks, Mr. Obama has said he would give former Vice President Al Gore, a Nobel Prize winner, a major role in his administration's global warming policy program and stop so-called "mountaintop removal" mining practices that have devastated mountains, hundreds of miles of streams and communities in West Virginia.

Mrs. Clinton recently told a West Virginia public radio station that she was not willing to ban mountaintop removal mining. A position statement by her campaign said mountaintop mining has "serious environmental consequences that need to be controlled and remediated," and criticized the Bush administration for failure to enforce federal Clean Water Act protections.

Tony Massaro, political director for the League of Conservation Voters in Washington, D.C., said the organization's lifetime environmental ratings for the two candidates are almost identical: Mrs. Clinton has an 87 percent pro-environment voting record, and Mr. Obama, 86 percent.

Their scores are down this year -- Mrs. Clinton is at 73 percent and Mr. Obama at 67 percent -- because they've missed some votes due to the campaign.

By contrast, the lifetime score for Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, is at 24 percent, and his score this year is zero.

"That's telling because Clinton and Obama made special trips to Washington to get back for critical environmental votes," Mr. Massaro said, "but McCain didn't bother."

Mr. Massaro said the Democratic candidates' focus on the economics of the environment reflects not only the economic concerns of the voters but also the environmental community's realization that passage of any new national energy policy depends on linking it to jobs and national security.

"It's important to break that false choice between the environment and the economy," he said. "Good environmental policy is good economic policy and those ties have only gotten stronger since the campaign started and the economy has gotten worse."

Pennsylvania Democratic Chairman T.J. Rooney, who has toured the state in recent days with former President Bill Clinton, said Democratic voters are concerned about the economy but are also more receptive to environmental issues than before, even in the state's "middle T," the broad, largely rural area that is generally considered conservative.

"There's skepticism out there but the folks in the 'T' are hunters and fishermen who want clean streams and forests," Mr. Rooney said. "They're different kinds of environmentalists than the folks in the suburbs who drive hybrids, but there's a realization among all voters that we have to end the dependence on foreign oil.

"At one time maybe folks put their backs up about the environment in areas where coal is king, but those days have changed. Every facet of their lives has changed because of the oil dependency, and the climate of this state is already beginning to change too. That makes them more receptive to the environmental and economic arguments."


Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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