Scherer Wanks About Renewable Energy

Michael Scherer is apparently one of those Washington journalists who likes politics but gets a nasty headache from the faintest whiff of policy details. Yesterday afternoon he wrote a typically vapid post accusing both Obama and McCain of distorting the others record which has received warranted derision, but only for part of what he wrote. The other part, emphasized by his response to the criticisms (and linked uncritically by Andrew Sullivan) is just as ignorant.

Scherer writes

The second Obama ad is even more egregious in misleading people about McCain's positions. The ad says McCain "voted against tax incentives for alternative energy--against ethanol, against fuel cells, against hybrids, against electric cars, against wind and solar, against geothermal." Then the ad says McCain wants to give $4 billion in tax breaks to oil companies. This is all a nifty bit of misdirection. The oil company tax breaks the ad refers to are a corporate tax cut McCain favors, which would apply to almost all profitable companies, not just oil companies--including those companies that work on wind, solar and biofuels.

And McCain does support specific tax incentives for alternatives to oil. In fact, he has a habit of mentioning his plan to promote alternative energy with tax incentives and subsidies at nearly every campaign stop. The McCain policy prescription is, on the whole, not as generous, or costly to taxpayers, as the plan advanced by Obama. But you can read all about it here.

This is, to be kind, an ignorant thing to say.

The claim made in the ad, that McCain "voted against tax incentives for alternative energy--against ethanol, against fuel cells, against hybrids, against electric cars, against wind and solar, against geothermal." is unambiguously true, and not in a deceptive voting-against-children/puppies kind of way. If Scherer was remotely familiar with the political history of renewable energy he would be rightly embarrassed. Allow me to enlighten him.

Renewable energy industries rely heavily on tax credits to compete with their subsidized fossil fuel brethren. The Investment and Production Tax Credits (ITC/PTC) are the primary direct federal incentive federal for renewable energy. The ITC is a tax credit to purchasers of energy systems, such as photovoltaic cells, and the PTC is a tax credit for producers of renewable energy, such as from wind farms or geothermal plants. The ITC/PTC are essential to the health of these industries. Examine how new installed capacity fell in the wind industry each time the PTC expired.The ITC/PTC are set to expire at the end of 2008, and all last year congress tried to pass extensions. The house passed several bills that included the extensions, but the senate was unable to overcome Republican filibusters due to their objection to the revenue offsets (ie. eliminating tax lopholes for offshore companies required by pay-as-you-go provisions).

John McCain skipped all of the votes. He skipped the votes on H.R.6. He skipped the votes on H.R.6049 and S.3335. He skipped the votes when the tax credits were included in the economic stimulus bill, and then the housing bill. The single greatest example that John McCain didn't value the ITC/PTC enough to break with his party, however, came on December 13th, 2007.

H.R.6 (The CLEAN Energy Act of 2007) was up for a cloture motion, as amended by S.Amdt.3841, which included the ITC/PTC extensions, as well as other incentives for renewable energy (and even tax breaks for bicycle commuters). The cloture vote that morning failed 59-40, with 60 needed to pass, with John McCain being the only senator to skip the vote. Later that day, the tax credits were removed the bill passed overwhelmingly (although McCain skipped that vote also).

If he had broken with his party and supported renewable energy, the ITC/PTC wouldn't currently be facing expiration. Now, Democrats are struggling to get them passed before the session ends. Next week, in fact, the "The Energy Independence and Investment Act of 2008" will come up for a vote. It extends the PTC by 2 years, and the ITC by 8 years (through 2016). It desperately needs John McCain's support, and I await to see how he will vote on it, as his campaign has yet to comment on it. I won't hold my breath for Mr. Scherer to report on the results.

If the ITC isn't extended before the end of the year, financing for new projects (especially large CST plants) will suffer, even if the ITC is extended when the congress reconvenes in next year..

Ok, so McCain has been conspicuously absent when his vote could have crucially helped renewable energy, but Scherer does say "And McCain does support specific tax incentives for alternatives to oil. In fact, he has a habit of mentioning his plan to promote alternative energy with tax incentives and subsidies at nearly every campaign stop." Well, if he says it, it must be true, right Scherer? Not exactly. Here is what McCain says about renewables in his "plan" that Schere invites us to read all about;

"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."

Hmm. That's not exactly the "specific tax breaks" that Scherer mentioned. No whiff of the structure of such tax breaks, the scale, the limitations, the definitions, or any of the other policy devils that matter so much. As for the duration, well, that's rather unhelpfully ambiguous as well.

That's not all, though. McCain's abysmal record on energy is long and storied. In a high profile fight almost a decade ago, he joined Republican colleagues to kill tens of millions of dollars to the DOE for researching solar and other renewables that Clinton had requested. [Warning to Scherer; to understand that act you'll need to figure out what a "motion to table the decision of the chair to recommit" is. Best not to worry yourself].

McCain gets claims a lot of credit for voting against the 2005 Energy bill, but that's an equally dubious claim, and it further undermines Scherer's arguments. McCain rails against the pork in that bill, but what did he do at the time? Author amendments to strip the pork? Author amendments to direct money to worthy projects? No. He offered no amendments to the 2005 energy bill. Zero. Obama offered 4, including one to authorize $10 million for a DOE advanced vehicle program that passed and was signed into law (and a less commendable FT process amendment).

McCain may preen about voting Nay, but his vote didn't matter. The bill passed overwhelmingly, primarily because despite it's multitude of flaws, it had to pass. It had a lot of crucial components, including renewable energy tax credits, and stripping the oil pork probably just wasn't worth stopping the whole appropriation. It's worth noting that as soon as the Democrats took control of the senate, Obama authored a bill to strip those Big Oil tax breaks from the 2005 energy bill (S.115). I don't remember McCain twisting arms to help him.

When the Democratic congress put forth it's energy bill in 2007, as in 2005 McCain offered no amendments. At no point did he introduce legislation for an "even-handed system of tax credits" for renewable energy. Then he skipped all the votes on the bill, and any other bill containing the tax credits. I know I'm being redundant, but on the remote chance that Scherer reads this, I really want to drive this point home. McCain's absences were "No" votes, because the Republican's were filibustering and forcing cloture votes.

Let's be clear about what's going on. Michael Scherer, who gets paid by Time magazine to report on politics, says that Obama is lying because McCain says so. Scherer seems to believe that just because McCain says something at every one of his town halls means it must be true. It's not. McCain is lying. McCain can claim to support anything he wants, but when he has a record of opposing it, and a hilariously ambiguous non-plan for it, it is entirely legitimate to point that out.

As he smugly writes "I find it telling that the good people of Media Matters/Atrios/TPM found no objection to the much more significant distortion I identify in the second Obama ad about McCain's plans for alternative energy," I smugly write "I find it telling that the Michael Scherer owns a computer with access to the internet and gets paid to write about politicians' records, and yet lacks the ability or desire to research said records, easily available online."