The choice between John McCain and Barack Obama for president could influence where this region gets new power, which energy industries thrive and how the state confronts climate change.
For Michael Weaver, algae and presidential politics are intertwined. That, in a nutshell, is why he’s a big fan of Barack Obama’s.
The 47-year-old entrepreneur’s latest venture is a Redmond company, Bionavitas, developing ways to grow algae whose oil can be used as a petroleum replacement.
Obama’s support of alternative energy as a way to cope with climate change and the country’s energy woes helped draw Weaver to the Democratic presidential candidate.
“What we need to do is we need to have a real focus on alternative energy, and certainly between the two plans Obama has really hit the nail on the head,” said Weaver, who previously made his fortune co-founding a company that created software for legal research.
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On the other side of the state, Brad Peck’s concerns about where this country will get electricity is one reason why he’s supporting Obama’s opponent, Republican John McCain. For years, Peck has worked as spokesman for Energy Northwest, the Richland-based consortium of public utilities that runs the state’s only nuclear-power plant.
“I think once in office we would see substantially more push from McCain on nuclear power,” Peck said.
Those views illustrate key differences between the two candidates on climate change and the closely intertwined issue of energy.
The differences can hit close to home for Washington residents and businesses: The choice of president could influence where this region gets new power, which energy industries thrive and how the state confronts climate change.
When it comes to global warming, what’s most apparent is how much the two candidates agree.
Both say climate change is a real, man-made problem that warrants federal action. And both endorse a pollution-cutting scheme known as “cap and trade.”
Under that system, the government would set limits on greenhouse-gas emissions, and companies would have to either cut emissions or buy pollution credits from companies already below the cap.
Starting in 2000 McCain broke with many in his party and established himself as a leading Republican calling for action. President Bush only recently talked of a human role in climate change, and opposes federal regulations to reduce greenhouse gases as a burden on the economy.
The two candidates’ positions hearten environmentalists and have dulled the edge on climate change as a campaign issue.
“If anyone else had been the [Republican] nominee, I think climate change would have been a wedge issue,” said Clifford Traisman, of the environmental group Washington Conservation Voters. “With McCain, you don’t have that as much.”
But the candidates do differ on how the country should break its reliance on fossil fuels like coal and oil, major sources of greenhouse gases.
McCain’s approach to new energy sources is largely in step with fellow Republicans. Like Bush, nuclear power is a centerpiece of his plan. He has called for construction of 45 new nuclear-power reactors in the United States by 2030 — a more than 40 percent increase from the current 104 reactors.
In his second debate with Obama, McCain said “nuclear power is safe, and it’s clean, and it creates hundreds of thousands of jobs.”
In past global-warming legislation, McCain has pressed for nuclear industry subsidies and loan guarantees worth as much as $3.7 billion, according to estimates from nuclear-power critics.
Obama has given nuclear power a cooler reception. While saying he supports it, he says the nation needs to figure out a way to deal with the radioactive waste it produces. He opposes the present nuclear-waste disposal plan — burying it deep in a mountain in Nevada — warning that safety questions remain.
Checkered nuclear history
The Columbia Generating Station near Richland is the only commercial nuclear-power plant operating in Washington. But several Tri-Cities-area companies could see a jump in business with a nuclear resurgence.
French-owned Areva employs 650 people at a Richland plant making the uranium pellets for fuel rods in nuclear reactors. Another company, Energy Solutions, has dozens of people working on decommissioning commercial nuclear reactors and managing their spent fuel.
A study by the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, a nuclear industry-backed group, estimated that 30 new reactors in the U.S. could create up to 21,000 new long-term jobs.
For Jim Buelt, manager of the nuclear-energy sector at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, it’s a matter of where the nation can get more “baseload” power — predictable power that can be turned on and off when needed, unlike wind and solar power.
“I’m a huge proponent of it [nuclear] because I see the benefits it can bring to the nation and the region,” Buelt said.
But Washington also has a history of radioactive pollution and financial catastrophe. The Hanford nuclear reservation near Richland and a former uranium mine northwest of Spokane are both federal Superfund cleanup sites.
The organization that built the Columbia Generating Station, known by the acronym WPPSS, earned the nickname “Whoops” for a $2.25 billion bond default in 1983, after cost overruns forced it to stop building four other nuclear reactors.
“My guess is that at least in this region nobody’s going to take the plunge for quite a while,” said Daniel Pope, a University of Oregon history professor, and author of a new history of WPPSS.
Obama has placed greater emphasis than McCain on renewable energy, and sees a bigger role for the federal government to promote it.
He favors tax breaks for renewable power projects, as well as making utilities meet renewable energy quotas.
He has called for a $150 billion initiative to boost research in fuel-efficient cars, renewable energy and “clean coal” technology. And he’s championed ethanol and biofuels subsidies.
That’s a contrast to McCain’s treatment of renewable energy. He has opposed several government-driven initiatives, arguing that after greenhouse-gas regulations are established, the free market should be left to sort out winners and losers.
McCain voted against requiring electric utilities to get a percentage of their power from renewable sources. He has called for increased fuel efficiency for cars, but hasn’t set a specific target. Unlike nuclear power, he opposes subsidies for domestic ethanol production.
“I oppose subsidies. Not just ethanol subsidies. Subsidies,” McCain told an audience in Ames, Iowa, late last year.
While the ethanol subsidies Obama supports play well in the corn-growing states of the Midwest, corn-based biofuels have been criticized for the environmental impacts of growing corn, and the potential to drive up the price of food.
In Washington, a growing thirst for renewable power has given rise to a fledgling green-power industry.
Wind turbines are unloaded at Washington ports. Seattle-area companies specialize in forecasting for wind-power companies and provide software that improves the efficiency of the electrical grid.
Nathan Rothman founded one of those emerging companies. His Seattle-based Optimum Energy sells software that improves the efficiency of heating and cooling systems in big buildings.
He thinks Obama’s plan to pump federal money into alternative energy could help make more attractive to potential investors. And he’s put off by McCain’s promotion of domestic oil drilling as an answer to the energy problem.
“I believe we really need the change,” Rothman said. Obama “understands the opportunities there are with green tech.”
Washington and Oregon together could see 41,000 to 63,000 new jobs by 2025 in alternative-energy related fields, according to a recent study by an environmental group, and a clean-energy consulting company.
Obama has a “straightforward set of policies” on renewable energy that “contrast with McCain pretty clearly,” said Seattle energy consultant Robert Kahn.
But in a nod to the candidate’s similarities, Kahn added that “McCain wouldn’t stand in the way of some of these policies. I really don’t think it’s something he would go out of the way to veto, but it isn’t a priority.”
Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or firstname.lastname@example.org