Which presidential candidate would do the most for the environment?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
March 4 2008 7:43 AM

Clinton, Obama, and McCain

Which candidate has the most green cred?

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain
How do the eco-plans of Clinton, Obama, and McCain stack up?

I'll be casting my vote in Ohio's Democratic primary, and I was wondering how the two main candidates compare on environmental issues. Who's got more green cred, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton? And how does John McCain stack up?

With all the rancorous bloviation that's infected the Democratic race of late, it's easy to forget that Obama and Clinton are essentially kinfolk when it comes to policy. Sure, there are wonky differences between their stances, particularly on health care. But there are precious few discrepancies between the front-runners' eco-plans, both of which focus primarily on energy. If you're looking for reasons to favor one over the other, you'll need to drill exceedingly deep.

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At the top of the agendas for both candidates is a cap-and-trade system to reduce the nation's carbon emissions. (Click here for Obama's plan and here for Clinton's.) Cap-and-trade requires companies to obtain credits that allow them to pollute a certain amount; initial credits are distributed by the government, which sets an overall limit on the number in circulation. Anyone can purchase additional credits from private-sector counterparts that have some to spare (presumably because they've cleaned up their practices). Obama and Clinton offer virtually identical cap-and-trade plans: Both propose auctioning off the initial credits and cutting America's carbon emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. In addition, the two presidential aspirants want 25 percent of the nation's energy to be derived from wind, solar, and other renewable sources by 2025.

Obama and Clinton also place identical price tags on their proposals to boost clean energy R&D: $150 billion over 10 years. Obama, however, doesn't really break down where that money will come from; the aforementioned cap-and-trade auctions would generate an undetermined portion but certainly not the entire sum. Clinton, on the other hand, states that $50 billion would come from energy companies, which would be subject to a "windfall-profits fee" and would lose tax breaks—proposals that won't sit well with Exxon Mobil and its fellow energy goliaths.

True to his roots as the junior senator from Illinois, Obama is slightly more gung-ho about biofuels. (The Land of Lincoln is also the land of ethanol; the state's corn is used to produce 40 percent of the nation's supply.) He wants to offer an additional per-gallon subsidy to biofuel refineries that are locally owned, and he wants all new American vehicles to be flex-fuel by 2012. Clinton counters by promising to increase domestic biofuel production to 60 billion gallons by 2030; she doesn't mention the word subsidies but does promise "loan guarantees" to spur the development of cellulosic ethanol.

The candidates' enthusiasm for ethanol is politically expedient, but the jury's still out as to whether it makes environmental sense. Obama and Clinton are both fans of E85, which may not be quite the boon (PDF) it's been touted as. Also controversial is the two Democrats' support for clean coal technology: Some greens claim that coal is inherently dirty, and all the liquefaction advances in the world won't change that. (Obama and Clinton both dance around the issue of nuclear power, stressing safety but staying vague as to whether they favor more nuclear plants. The candidates gave similarly ambiguous answers when asked about the issue during a 2007 CNN YouTube debate.)

Overall, Clinton's plan is a little better on nitty-gritty details. The Lantern likes her specific shout-outs to plug-in hybrid vehicles and light-emitting diodes, as well as her adoption of Al Gore's idea for a federal agency (dubbed Connie Mae) that will facilitate the development of green homes. The plan's language is also more pragmatic than Obama's, with lots of emphasis on the phrase market-based in order to appeal to laissez-fairers and a whole section dedicated to explaining how the "green economy" will reinvigorate American industry.

Obama, on the other hand, seems to regard environmentalism as more of a moral obligation than an economic opportunity. He's shorter on specifics, particularly when it comes to financial breakdowns, but he discusses some pressing big-picture concepts—for example, the environmental consequences of urban sprawl, a phenomenon that has been encouraged by misguided tax incentives. And he gets points for thinking not just about energy, but also several issues near and dear to green-minded voters: As elucidated in this supplementary fact sheet, Obama's team hopes to tackle lead poisoning, toxic runoff from livestock operations, and sustainable solutions to Western drought.