The presidential candidates of both major parties have spent a great deal of time talking about energy policy and almost as much addressing environmental issues. Their positions differ more in emphasis than in fundamentals.

On the other hand, the two vice-presidential candidates present stark contrasts. Vice presidents Al Gore and Dick Cheney certainly had central roles in shaping the environmental policies of the administrations of presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, respectively, and any examination of the likely actions of the team that will move into the White House in January should look closely at the bottom as well as the top of the tickets.

This article looks at the environmental positions and records of the Republican candidates, Senator John McCain of Arizona and Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, and the Democratic candidates, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware. My intent is to describe the candidates’ positions but not to evaluate them. 1

Voting Records

The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) rates the voting records of all members of Congress. A perfect score, by LCV’s measures, is 100 percent. In 2007, Sen. McCain had a score of 0 percent and both Sen. Obama and Sen. Biden had scores of 67 percent. (Since Gov. Palin has never been a member of Congress, she has no LCV score.) However, when a legislator does not vote, that counts the same as a wrong vote. In fact, in 2007 Sen. McCain did not participate in any of the 15 votes that the LCV scored; thus the score does not clearly identify his positions on any of the bills. Both Sen. Obama and Sen. Biden voted on 10 of the 15 bills; their votes agreed with the LCV’s positions in 9 of them. (The one exception was a water resources bill, which they both voted against, but LCV favored.)

Looking across a greater period of time, the candidates have these lifetime LCV scores: Sen. Obama, 86 percent; Sen. Biden, 83 percent; Sen. McCain, 24 percent.

Climate Change

Climate change and oil drilling are the environmental issues that are receiving the most attention in the campaign. In 1997 Sen. McCain and Sen. Biden were among the 95 senators who voted for a resolution opposing the Kyoto Protocol. In 1998, as a member of the Illinois Legislature, Sen. Obama voted for a bill condemning the Kyoto Protocol and barring state efforts to regulate greenhouse gases (GHGs). But in more recent years all three senators have spoken out strongly for the importance of addressing climate change.

Sen. McCain was an early proponent of mandatory GHG regulation, and he and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., cosponsored the Lieberman-McCain Climate Stewardship Act in 2003. Sen. McCain has gone out of his way to differentiate himself from President Bush on climate issues. In one pointed remark at a speech in May 2008 he said, “I will not permit eight long years to pass without serious action on serious challenges. I will not accept the same dead-end of failed diplomacy that claimed Kyoto. The United States will lead and will lead with a different approach – an approach that speaks to the interests and obligations of every nation.”

Since joining the Senate, Sen. Obama has been adamant about the importance of addressing climate change, and he has frequently discussed the issue in speeches and debates.

Sen. Biden also has a long history of supporting climate-change regulation. In 1986 he cosponsored the first bill designed to limit GHGs, the Global Climate Protection Act. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, he has held hearings on climate change as a national security issue.

All three senators have repeatedly said that they support cap-and-trade legislation. They have said the United States should participate in international negotiations toward a climate change agreement. However, they differ in some of the details. For example, an important design feature of a cap-and-trade system is whether allowances (the legal right to emit GHGs) are sold or given away. Sen. Obama has said that 100 percent of allowances would be auctioned from the start. Sen. McCain would convene a commission to recommend the percentage of allowances to be provided for free and the percentage to be auctioned, and to develop a schedule to increase the percentage auctioned over time. Sen. McCain has also been more favorable than Sen. Obama to achieving required GHG emission reductions through offsets.

Sen. McCain caused confusion when he gave an interview with Greenwire in February 2008 in which, according to the transcript, he stated: “It’s not . . . mandatory caps. It’s cap-and-trade, OK. It’s not mandatory caps to start with. It’s cap-and-trade. That’s very different. OK? Because that’s a gradual reduction in greenhouse emissions.” In several other appearances he has also stated that cap-and-trade does not involve mandatory caps. The meaning of these statements has been subject to some debate.

Palin on Climate Change

Gov. Palin clearly believes that climate change is a real threat, but she has expressed doubts about its causes. In September 2007 she established a subcabinet to prepare a climate change strategy. In her announcement of this action, she stated, “Many scientists note that Alaska’s climate is changing. We are already seeing the effects. Coastal erosion, thawing permafrost, retreating sea ice and record forest fires affect our communities and our infrastructure. Some scientists tell us to expect more changes in the future. We must begin to prepare for those changes now.”

Her statement said that Alaska can contribute to solving the climate change problem in several ways. “Through the administration’s aggressive pursuit of a Natural Gas Pipeline, Alaska can provide a clean, domestic, reliable source of energy for decades to come.” She added that Alaska “has tremendous alternative-energy potential,” and that the subcabinet “will be looking at ways to develop, support and expand renewable energy resource programs and to promote aggressive development of renewable energy sources such as geothermal, wind, hydroelectric, tidal, and in-stream energy.”

In an interview with the on-line news organization Newsmax, Gov. Palin was asked, “What is your take on global warming and how it is affecting our country?” She responded, “A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location. I’m not one though who would attribute it to being man-made.” Similarly, the Anchorage Daily News reported on Dec. 31, 2006 that during the political campaign of the prior fall, Gov. Palin “said she remained unconvinced about how much human emissions contribute to current global warming trends.”

She was pressed on this issue by Charles Gibson of ABC in an interview on Sept. 12. She said, “I’m attributing some of man’s activities to potentially causing some of the changes in the climate right now.”

In August 2008, the state of Alaska sued the Department of Interior for listing the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as a threatened species due to climate change. This suit was foretold by an article that Gov. Palin wrote for the Op Ed page of the Jan. 5, 2008 New York Times. She spoke favorably of the state’s ban on hunting of polar bears (except by Alaska Native subsistence families) and its “measures to protect denning areas and to prevent harassment of the bears.” However, she said she opposed listing them under the ESA, as “there is insufficient evidence that polar bears are in danger of becoming extinct within the foreseeable future.” She wrote that climate change controls “should be adopted through an open process in which environmental issues are weighed against economic and social needs, and where scientists debate and present information that policy makers need to make the best decisions.”

Oil Drilling

The candidates have had evolving positions on the issue of offshore oil drilling.

During his 2000 campaign, Sen. McCain opposed ending the federal moratorium on offshore drilling. In June 2008, in the face of tremendous voter concern about high gasoline prices, he said he now favors lifting the ban. Sen. Obama promptly attacked this shift, declaring that Sen. McCain’s “decision to completely change his position and tell a group of Houston oil executives exactly what they wanted to hear today was the same Washington politics that has prevented us from achieving energy independence for decades.”

During his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on Sept. 4, Sen. McCain declared, “We will drill new wells offshore, and we’ll drill them now. We will build more nuclear power plants. We will develop clean coal technology. We will increase the use of wind, tide, solar and natural gas. We will encourage the development and use of flex-fuel, hybrid and electric automobiles.”

Sen. Obama’s campaign literature had supported continuation of the offshore drilling moratorium. However, in early August 2008 he stated that he might be willing to relax the moratorium if it were part of a broader bipartisan agreement on energy policy.

Gov. Palin has supported oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The three senators have all opposed it.


Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of GHG emissions in the United States. Both Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama support significant federal investments in the development of carbon capture and sequestration technologies so that coal can be used cleanly.

Sen. Biden appears less enthusiastic about “clean coal” in the United States. He told an interviewer in Grist, “I don’t think there’s much of a role for clean coal in energy independence, but I do think there’s a significant role for clean coal in the bigger picture of climate change. Clean-coal technology is not the route to go in the United States, because we have other, cleaner alternatives. But I would invest a considerable amount of money in research and development of clean-coal and carbon-sequestration technologies for export. China is building one new coal-fired power plant per week. That’s not going to change unless there’s a fundamental change in technology, because they have about 300 years of dirty coal, and they’re going to use it.”


Sen. McCain is much more amenable to nuclear power than Sen. Obama. Sen. McCain calls for the construction of 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030, with the ultimate goal of constructing 100 new plants. He has said, “The barriers to nuclear energy are political not technological. We’ve let the fears of 30 years ago, and an endless political squabble over the storage of nuclear spent fuel make it virtually impossible to build a single new plant that produces a form of energy that is safe and nonpolluting. If France can produce 80 percent of its electricity with nuclear power, why can’t we? Is France a more secure, advanced and innovative country than we are?”

Sen. Obama’s campaign literature states, “Nuclear power represents more than 70 percent of our non-carbon-generated electricity. It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power from the table. However, there is no future for expanded nuclear power without first addressing four key issues: public right-to-know, security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage, and proliferation.”

Before being tapped for the vice presidential nomination, Sen. Biden told Grist, “I see a role for nuclear, but first you’ve got to deal with the security as well as the safety concerns. I’d be spending a whole hell of a lot of money trying to figure out how to reconfigure the spent fuel into reusable fuel. I would not invest in [growing our nuclear-power capacity in its current form], but I would invest in sorting out the storage and waste problems.”


Sen. Obama and Sen. Biden are stronger supporters than Sen. McCain of government action to encourage use of renewable energy resources. Sen. McCain has consistently opposed federal adoption of a renewable portfolio standard, which would require electric utilities to supply a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources, such as wind, solar and geothermal. Sen. Obama supports such a program, and has said that 25 percent of the electricity consumed in the United States should be derived from renewable sources by 2025. He has said that 30 percent of the federal government’s electricity should come from renewable sources by 2020.

Sen. Obama supports the extension of tax credits for renewable energy. Sen. McCain has missed key votes on the extension. His literature says that to develop wind, solar and other renewable energy sources “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.”

Sen. Obama is a much stronger supporter of the use of biofuels than Sen. McCain. Sen. McCain’s campaign literature does not present biofuels as an important element of solving the climate problem, though it does say that “alcohol-based fuels hold great promise as both an alternative to gasoline and as a means of expanding consumers’ choices.”

Sen. Obama has supported corn subsidies and cosponsored several bills to increase domestic production, distribution and use of biofuels.

Michael B. Gerrard heads the New York office of Arnold & Porter. His most recent books are “Global Climate Change and U.S. Law” (ABA 2007) and “The Law of Environmental Justice” (2d ed., ABA 2008).


1. Disclosure: the author has contributed to the Obama campaign.