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Gas Prices and the Presidential Candidates

by Jeff Mapes
The Oregonian, April 18, 2008

On the Bush administration's deal for Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead

One of Barack Obama's top environmental advisors, Dan Kammen, spoke at Portland State University Thursday and was quick to respond when someone asked him about John McCain's suggestion thaty there be a summer "gas tax holiday" to help reduce the price of fuel.

"That's almost like saying we're giving free coke to addicts for a while," he said. "That's a very bizarre position." For a UC Berkeley professor who is founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, this only makes sense. In their energy plans, both Obama and Hillary Clinton say the country needs to quickly move away from fossil fuels by investing more in alternatives, ranging from plug-in hybrid cars to more mass transit. As Kammen told me after the forum, "if you're going to use more oil for an oil problem, you don't get very far."

But even if high oil prices are forcing the U.S. to look seriously at alternatives - just as they did during the 1970s - there's no doubt consumers are hurting. I was in Medford a few weeks ago to cover Bill Clinton, and I asked the clerk at the rental car counter whether there was anything she wanted me to say to the ex-president. "Tell him to find a way to lower gas prices," she instantly shot back.

That's why no politician will explicitly tell voters they will just have to endure high gas prices while the country makes a transition.

Obama actually came the closest to saying that in his debate with Clinton in Philadelphia on Wednesday (yes, they actually discussed some issues, toward the end of the two-hour affair).

I think that long term, we're going to have to raise fuel efficiency standards on cars, because the only way that we're going to be able to reduce gas prices is if we reduce demand. You've still got a billion people in China, and maybe 700 million in India, who still want cars. And so the long-term trajectory is that we're going to have to get serious about increasing our fuel efficiency standards and investing in new technologies.

That's something I'm committed to doing. I've talked about spending $150 billion over 10 years in an Apollo Project, a Manhattan Project to create the alternative energy strategies that will work not only for this generation but for the next.

Clinton devoted most of her answer to talking about how she would stop filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for a year to reduce upward pressure on prices and about investigating the oil companies to see if they are price gouging. And she suggested she might be open to the idea of a gas-tax holiday, coupled with a windfall profits tax to help recover highway fund money lost by eliminating the 18.4-cent federal gas tax for two months.

As it turns out, Obama had joined Clinton back in March in urging a year-long moratorium in putting oil in the strategic petroleum reserve. So he's not immune to the politics of trying to do something to ease voter pain now.

ON A DIFFERENT ISSUE, I also asked Kammen about the region's long fight over how best to recover endangered salmon populations. He's also quite interested in new technology there, saying that "run of the river" turbines can be substituted for some dams, preserving power generation while providing better conditions for fish.

More specifically, he said an Obama administration would not insist - as has President Bush - that removal of the Snake River dams be ruled out as a salmon recovery strategy. "It needs to be looked at," he said.

"I think that there's no way that you would, like, take out them all," he said, referring to the four big dams on the Snake. "But we know from looking at salmon populations that taking out some and having much larger refuge areas, and then having transport upriver and then having better ladders provides a way to actually rebuild populations, and that took place in a number of areas already. That's very much been the hallmark of what went on in Iceland and in Sweden."

Kammen added that, "We haven't done what I think is the most obvious need, and that is an integrated assessment. You cannot sit down and say the federal government, in fact, has gone through that."

Jeff Mapes
Gas Prices and the Presidential Candidates
The Oregonian, April 18, 2008

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