U.N. Foundation's Detchon talks conventions, prominence of energy and climate

As the political conventions wrap up, what were the major energy and climate themes presented by the Democrats and Republicans? Where do the candidates differ on these issues? What do the vice presidential nominations indicate about the future of contentious issues like offshore drilling and climate legislation? During today's OnPoint, Reid Detchon, executive director of energy and climate at the United Nations Foundation and executive director of the Energy Future Coalition, talks about how energy and climate discussions played into both conventions. Detchon lays out a strategy for the next administration to address climate change within its first six months in office. He also discusses Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) vice presidential pick and its potential impact on energy and climate discussions.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. Our guest today is Reid Detchon, executive director of Energy and Climate at the United Nations Foundation and also the executive director of the Energy Future Coalition. Reid, thanks for being here.

Reid Detchon: Glad to be here.

Monica Trauzzi: Reid, we're just about ready to wrap up the 2008 convention season. Let's go in chronological order here. What was the biggest theme in terms of energy and climate at the Democratic National Convention?

Reid Detchon: Well, I think the Democrats are following the Republican lead, in some respect, in putting more emphasis on energy security than they would have even a few months ago. I think that the Republican's emphasis on drilling offshore has forced the Democrats into a bit of a defensive position on that. But I think that the platform and the speakers really put the appropriate emphasis on energy as an opportunity to reinvest in America, in our infrastructure and build economic growth and new jobs, new businesses for America.

Monica Trauzzi: And during his speech, former Vice President Al Gore said that, "McCain is not prepared to address our planetary emergency," as he calls it, "but Obama is." McCain sort of led the way early on in terms of climate change legislation in the Senate. Is that a fair statement or is that just rhetoric that we're hearing from Gore?

Reid Detchon: Well, I think a fair statement would be that either candidate, both candidates have shown strong support for some kind of a cap on carbon. I think that it's perhaps a little better fleshed out on the Obama side and I think it's integrated into this larger economic theme in a way that's positive, investment in renewable energy, etc. But I thought it was remarkable that during the Olympics both McCain and Obama, had very expensive advertising, obviously a very big decision within the campaign, their advertising during the Olympics was about renewable energy. And I took that to be a very positive sign.

Monica Trauzzi: So, Obama is calling for us to get off of Middle East oil in the next 10 years. Is that technologically feasible? Is that something that you see happening?

Reid Detchon: I think technology will be a big part of it. I think that it would be hard to do simply by mandating higher fuel economy standards or through biofuel mandates alone. But we see a pretty rapid uptake of plug-in hybrid vehicles coming in the future and I think the combination of those could make feasible. Remember that Middle East oil is only about 20 percent of our total import, so it's not getting off foreign oil altogether, but it is making a significant dent.

Monica Trauzzi: And the big news for the Republicans at the start of their convention was, of course, Hurricane Gustav. They're back to their convention schedule now, but, overall, do you think this hiccup in the plans had a positive or negative impact? Did this sort of provide an opportunity for the Republicans to separate themselves from President Bush? What do you think the impact is?

Reid Detchon: Well, it's hard to tell today. My instinct is to say, if anything, it's a mild positive. I think that four days of the Republican convention they would have had a hard time maintaining the same level of intensity that the Democrats had. I think that getting President Bush off into a command position where he was showing that he was in charge and supervising efforts to respond to Gustav, I think was a good image for the party. So, I think that they're probably more concerned about Hurricane Sarah.

Monica Trauzzi: You mentioned offshore drilling. How far do you think the Republicans are going to go in terms of offshore drilling discussions at the convention?

Reid Detchon: Oh, well, I think at the convention we're likely to hear a lot of drill here, drill now rhetoric. I think that you have to be realistic about what is possible to accomplish in Congress. I expect that the Democrats will end up accommodating some drilling into their energy packages, but at the same time make it difficult for the Republicans to agree by including royalty take-backs from the oil companies or other kinds of tax provisions that will effectively bring revenue in from the oil companies to support renewable energy. But I think that there will be a package that will include offshore drilling.

Monica Trauzzi: Hurricane Sarah, as you called it, lots of attention being paid to McCain's VP choice. Palin is from an oil state. She supports drilling in ANWR. What's your take on his choice? Where do you think this goes?

Reid Detchon: Well, I don't think that he made this choice based on energy issues, but it does pose some interesting choices for him. I think realistically one would have to say that the outcome will be that McCain will drift toward Palin's position on drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, which he has heretofore opposed, she supports that. I imagine you'll see, in conjunction with the general excitement in the Republican Party about drilling right now, you'll see him drifting toward a position of having been informed by the governor of Alaska about the actual situation on the ground, I'm reconsidering my position. I think that, on the other hand, Palin's position on climate change, which after all is one of McCain's signature issues, is completely at odds where she does not even acknowledge the human involvement in climate change. And I would expect that she, in turn, will have to be better educated about the science and that she will have to drift into his camp on that. But I think it's an important question for McCain, because what, after all, is the sole, statutory duty of the vice president is to preside over the Senate. And, in effect, an able vice president can be an important force in the Senate and that will be the cockpit of action on climate change over the next two years if either president is elected. But if McCain is elected one would expect that he would want Vice President Palin to be carrying his message to the Republican caucus in the Senate and reaching a deal on cap-and-trade legislation. That will be quite a stretch from her current position.

Monica Trauzzi: So, what does the game plan then need to be for the next president, whether it's McCain or Obama, for the first six to nine months in order to get things moving on climate? What do they need to do? How do they need to position the policy?

Reid Detchon: I think the one thing that's important to remember about the climate issue is that the international negotiations are coming to a head. And there is a hope, even an expectation that a deal will be reached in Copenhagen at the end of 2009. Given the usual time it takes an administration to staff up and get ready, that's, in many peoples’ view, an impossibly short timeline to engage on this topic. I think that if the McCain or the Obama team wants to be ready on day one to engage, they have to be starting now. And certainly after the election make a very important part of their transition their position on energy and climate, both in the international context, but in the underpinnings and the inter-linkages based on the cap-and-trade legislation and so forth, how far will the U.S. be able to go in the negotiations? After all, the U.S. has a history now with Kyoto of promising and not delivering. And so there's going to be an absolutely key credibility gap to address, to show to the countries with which the U.S. will be negotiating that, in point of fact, Congress will deliver the deal that the administration negotiates. This is going to be very challenging. I think that they need to put immediate attention on it. They need to get the Senate engaged from day one.

Monica Trauzzi: But how likely is that when you have things like the Iraq war and high energy prices, the slumping economy, the housing crisis, things like that that are very pressing for average Americans? How do you sort of put climate ahead of that?

Reid Detchon: Well, I think that the two candidates would take different approaches with different results. I think that Senator McCain is likely to treat it as a freestanding environmental issue and I do think that that poses some difficulties for him in terms of the timetable you just described. I think that there's some likelihood that the theme of investing in the energy infrastructure of the country as a central part of an economic strategy might be the hallmark of an Obama administration. And, if that's the case, that could come out of the box on day one.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, we're going to end it right there on that note. Thanks for coming on the show.

Reid Detchon: Glad to be here.

Monica Trauzzi: Thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.



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