A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Wind Power Puffery

McCain's new ad touts "renewable energy," but his energy plan offers little to support it.


Summary

A McCain ad shows pictures of wind-driven turbines while the narrator says: "Renewable energy to transform our economy, create jobs and energy independence, that's John McCain." But, in fact, his energy plan doesn't specify any new federal spending for renewable energy and says only that he'd "rationalize" existing tax credits to provide incentives. In the past, however, he's opposed extending such tax credits when paid for by tax increases elsewhere.

The ad also insinuates that Obama would bring "higher taxes" for "your family," another in what has become a pattern of misrepresentations of Obama's tax plan. Obama actually proposes to cut taxes for all but the most affluent families. He wants to restore tax rates to pre-Bush levels only for those making over $250,000 a year.

Analysis

The battle of the energy ads continues: John McCain's campaign released its latest spot Aug. 6, criticizing Barack Obama for his stance on the Bush tax cuts and highlighting McCain's plans for "renewable energy." The ad will run in "key states," according to the campaign.

 

[TET ]

 
John McCain 2008 Ad: "Family"

Announcer: Is the biggest celebrity in the world ready to help your family? The real Obama promises higher taxes, more government spending. So, fewer jobs. Renewable energy to transform our economy, create jobs and energy independence, that's John McCain.

McCain: I'm John McCain and I approved this message. [/TET]

 

Support, But No Specifics

The ad says: "Renewable energy to transform our economy, create jobs and energy independence, that's John McCain."

But McCain's energy plan doesn't say a whole lot about "renewable energy." His ads, including this one, have featured images of wind turbines, which, like solar, hydropower or biomass projects, tap energy sources that will never run out. But McCain's energy plan and statements about such renewables are vague and left to interpretation. He's offered more specifics, and federal dollars, for nuclear power and "clean coal" technologies. The back-up the campaign provided with the ad includes this comment from McCain on an "international green economy":

McCain press release, June 25: Green jobs and green technology will be vital to our economic future. There is no reason that the U.S. should not be a leader in developing and deploying these new technologies.

Beyond that, the campaign points to McCain's commitment of $2 billion in annual funding for "clean coal" technology and his goal of building 45 new nuclear plants by 2030. Coal – even if it's "clean" – isn't a renewable energy source. Ditto for nuclear. McCain also wants to create a permanent research and development tax credit equal to 10 percent of wages spent on R&D for all industries. As for wind, hydro and solar power specifically, McCain hints that some tax credits might be provided, or extended, or something:

McCain's "Lexington Project" energy plan: To develop these and other sources of renewable energy will require that we rationalize the current patchwork of temporary tax credits that provide commercial feasibility. John McCain believes in an even-handed system of tax credits that will remain in place until the market transforms sufficiently to the point where renewable energy no longer merits the taxpayers' dollars.

We're not sure what "rationalize the current patchwork of temporary tax credits" means. And neither are wind or solar industry spokespeople. "I don't even know what that means," Frank Maisano, a spokesman for energy companies including utilities and wind, told us when we read that line from McCain's plan. "It means that they don't want to tell people what that means." We asked the McCain campaign for clarification and whether the candidate had proposed any new federal spending for renewable energy (none is included in his plan). We got this statement:

McCain camp statement: John McCain has proposed to make sense out of our support for renewable energy sources. For too long, the temporary tax credits for renewable energy sources has more closely reflected the power of each source's respective lobbyist, rather than its need or market viability. John McCain has proposed establishing a regime of federal support that will remain predictable and remain in place until an energy source can stand on its own in our market. Further, John McCain has committed to a generous and reformed R&D tax credit to spur innovation across industries, including the energy sector.

That sounds like McCain supports long-term tax credits, something renewable energy advocates would welcome, though it's not something he has supported in the past – even the very recent past. The federal investment tax credit, which provides incentives to businesses and individuals to invest in renewable energy, is set to expire at the end of the year. Renewable energy groups have lobbied for passage of Senate measures that would have extended the credit for eight years, but the legislation has been blocked eight times by Republicans who object to other tax increases that would cover the cost of the credits. McCain, and Obama, missed the most recent vote on such legislation.

McCain's statements on "rationaliz[ing] the current patchwork" and establishing "a regime of federal support that will remain predictable" don't offer enough detail for renewable energy advocates to say what his proposals would accomplish. Sara Birmingham, director of western U.S. policy at the Solar Alliance, a state-based advocacy group of solar industry companies, told us: "We absolutely like longer predictability," but she couldn't really say how the group felt about McCain's proposal "until we actually see what he has in mind."

Monique Hanis, director of communications for the Solar Energy Industries Association, said: "He really needs to fill in with specifics like what energy sources should be stimulated, what are his goals, what mix would he want to see by what timeframe."

McCain's vague pronouncements about renewable energy are overshadowed by his very specific proposals for nuclear plants, offshore drilling and a push to develop "clean coal" capabilities. Hanis, who couldn't hide her unhappiness for such a focus even in an e-mail, told us, "that seems like a patchwork."

In the past, McCain has not supported subsidies for renewable energy, or much else. In May, according to the Wall Street Journal, he said he was "wary" of government subsidies but that he supported federal help for nuclear power. Hanis also notes that his voting record doesn't show support for credits, either. The League of Conservation Voters gave McCain a 0 percent rating on its environmental scorecard for 2007 – he missed all the votes – and a 24 percent lifetime rating.

 
Obama's Version

Obama offers much more specific language and goals regarding renewable energy in his plan. The proposal rests on spending $150 billion over 10 years for alternative and renewable energy efforts, including promoting "development of commercial scale renewable energy." He also says he'll require that 25 percent of electricity used in the U.S. comes from sustainable sources such as solar, wind and geothermal by 2025. (Whether that's achievable remains to be seen: The Dept. of Energy says wind could provide 20 percent of U.S. electricity by 2030.)

And while the McCain camp didn't mention this in its back-up material for the ad, we also note that McCain supports a cap-and-trade program that would limit companies' greenhouse gas emissions. Such a plan could encourage corporations to invest in renewable energy by making the burning of coal, natural gas or petroleum more expensive. Obama also proposes a cap-and-trade program in a different form. Depending on the details, such plans should cause companies to shift to renewable or alternative energy sources by raising the cost of carbon-emitting energies.

Both candidates have taken to criticizing the other for having no real energy plan. The charges are false. Both candidates have released comprehensive plans.  Obama's proposal and McCain's are available on their Web sites.

 
More 'Higher Taxes' Hooey

 

McCain's recent ad also continues a pattern of false claims about Obama's tax proposals. At the outset, the announcer asks whether Obama is "ready to help your family" and then quickly says the "real Obama promises higher taxes." That's false for all but the highest income families. The real Obama tax plan would raise taxes only for those with family income above $250,000 a year ($200,000 for singles).

McCain regularly misrepresents his opponent's tax plan, falsely claiming that Obama's plan would increase taxes on 23 million small-business owners, when the vast majority of them would get a cut; wrongly saying that Obama would "raise taxes on electricity," though Obama has said no such thing; and saying that Obama would raise taxes on investments in stock in a retirement plan – which is also not true.

– by Lori Robertson

Sources

The Lexington Project.” JohnMcCain.com, accessed 8 Aug. 2008.

John McCain 2008 Launches New TV Ad: ‘Family,’ ” press release. JohnMcCain.com, 6 Aug. 2008.

Interview with Frank Maisano, spokesman for energy companies, 6 Aug. 2008.

Solar lobby hopes bill has 9th life.” The Hill, 28 July 2008.

Federal issues, the Investment Tax Credit. Solar Energy Industries Association Web site, accessed 8 Aug. 2008.

U.S. Senate Roll Call Votes 110th Congress. Vote 192. Senate.gov, 30 July 2008.

Interview with Sara Birmingham, director of western U.S. policy at the Solar Alliance, 7 Aug. 2008.

Interview with Monique Hanis, director of communications, Solar Energy Industries Association, via e-mail, 6 Aug. 2008.

Meckler, Laura and Stephen Power. “McCain Raises Concerns About Subsidies for Solar Power.” Wall Street Journal, 13 May 2008.

LCV Releases 2007 National Environmental Scorecard,” press release. League of Conservation Voters, 21 Feb. 2008.

Barack Obama: New Energy for America.” BarackObama.com, accessed 8 Aug. 2008.

Wind Energy Could Produce 20 Percent of U.S. Electricity By 2030,” press release. Department of Energy, 12 May 2008.

Learning About Renewable Energy.” National Renewable Energy Laboratory Web site, accessed 8 Aug. 2008.

Wingfield, Brian. “The Incredible Shrinking Energy Bill.” Forbes.com 13 Dec. 2007.