LARRY ROHTER, The New York Times, August 5, 2008
Senator Barack Obama altered his position on Monday to call for tapping the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve to lower gasoline prices as he outlined an energy plan that contrasts with Senator John McCain’s greater emphasis on expanded offshore drilling and coal and nuclear technology.
In a speech here and in a new advertisement, Mr. Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, also sought to portray his Republican rival, Mr. McCain, as “in the pocket” of oil giants that are profiting from gasoline priced at more than $4 a gallon. And in his speech, Mr. Obama called for a windfall profits tax on oil companies to finance rebates for Americans.
At the heart of Mr. Obama’s proposals is a focus on fostering alternative energy development by investing $150 billion in emerging technologies and renewable fuels. Seeking to put a million fuel-efficient hybrid plug-in automobiles on the road, he said that he would offer a $7,000 tax credit to buyers, the overall cost of which he did not specify. In addition, Mr. Obama said his goal was to have 10 percent of the country’s energy needs met by renewable resources by the end of his first term, more than double the current figure.
While focusing on alternative energy production, Mr. Obama has veered in recent days toward increasing access to fossil fuels, both in seeking to tap the strategic oil reserve and in softening his opposition to offshore oil drilling. He said he might be willing to accept some exploration of limited offshore drilling as part of a more comprehensive energy bill that would include things he favors, like renewable fuels and batteries for electric-powered cars.
The proposals Mr. Obama offered Monday represented an effort to return the campaign’s focus to bread-and-butter issues after he found himself repeatedly on the defensive last week against a newly aggressive McCain campaign.
“We should sell 70 million barrels of oil from our Strategic Petroleum Reserve for less expensive crude, which in the past has lowered gas prices within two weeks,” Mr. Obama said. “Over the next five years, we should also lease more of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska for oil and gas production, and we should also tap more of our substantial natural gas reserves and work with the Canadian government to finally build the Alaska natural gas pipeline, delivering clean natural gas.”
Mr. McCain and his campaign have been increasingly tweaking Mr. Obama and his energy policy. The McCain campaign distributed tire pressure gauges outside the event here in response to Mr. Obama’s statement last week that Americans could reduce gasoline use substantially if they kept car tires at optimum pressure. Mr. McCain has called Mr. Obama “Dr. No” and said that his energy policy could be reduced to the phrase “just say no” to proposals to increase energy production.
“We have to drill here and drill now,” Mr. McCain said Monday in Lafayette Hill, Pa. “Not wait and see if there’s areas to explore, not wait and see if there’s a package to put together. But drill here and drill now.”
Mr. McCain has focused much more on the supply side of the energy equation, supporting increased reliance on nuclear power, the use of so-called clean coal technology and expanded offshore drilling. But he has called for halting purchases to replenish the strategic oil reserve, rather than tapping into it.
Aides to Mr. Obama said that he now favored releasing light oil from that emergency stockpile, 707 million barrels stored in salt caverns, and replacing it with heavier oil, which they said would be more appropriate for the country’s long-term energy needs. They described that action — meant to help drive down oil prices, which have begun falling in the last month after a long, sharp increase — as a “limited swap” rather than a depletion of the reserve.
Mr. Obama said that through a mixture of investment, discipline and more restrained consumption it would be possible to completely eliminate oil imports from the Middle East and Venezuela within 10 years. Through a combination of similar measures, he said, Americans could at the same time reduce electricity consumption by 15% and create 5 million jobs.
“I will not pretend we can achieve them without cost, or without sacrifice, or without the contribution of almost every American citizen,” Mr. Obama said of his objectives. “But I will say that these goals are possible, and I will say that achieving them is absolutely necessary if we want to keep America safe and prosperous in the 21st century.”
Repeating his call for a windfall profits tax on companies like Exxon-Mobil, which he singled out in his speech on Monday, Mr. Obama said he would use part of the tax to provide consumers with an “emergency energy rebate” of $1,000 per family.
Mr. Obama and his campaign have criticized Mr. McCain for accepting what they call excessive campaign donations from energy interests. Campaign Money Watch, a watchdog organization, said the McCain campaign received a burst of donations in June from oil company employees after he came out in favor of offshore drilling. Together, Hess employees or their relatives contributed more than $300,000 in June to Mr. McCain’s joint fund-raising committee with the Republican National Committee, according to campaign finance records.
Brian Rogers, a spokesman for the McCain campaign, said officials had examined the donations and found nothing untoward.
Mr. Obama offered details of his energy plan as Democrats have been under continuing pressure to allow offshore drilling. Though Congress is in its August break, a band of Republicans occupied the darkened House floor Monday to criticize the Democratic leadership for refusing to allow a vote on lifting a ban on drilling off much of the nation’s coastline before heading out of town.
About 25 lawmakers, many from the most conservative wing of the Republican Party, railed throughout the day at Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, saying her “San Francisco mentality” was impeding domestic energy production.
Republicans circulated a petition to urge Ms. Pelosi to call the House back into session, and some called for President Bush, who was on his way to China for the Olympics, to demand that Congress return. The White House said Monday that such a step was unlikely.