ENERGY POLICY stands out as an issue on which the presidential candidates have distinct philosophies. The president has said that his energy goals are to promote conservation and "make America less dependent on foreign sources of energy." Yet while it is not fair to hold President Bush entirely responsible for the pork-stuffed energy bill that Congress failed to pass last year, it is fair to say that the bill reflected his administration's minimal concern for conservation, coupled with its deep-seated belief that the best way to make the United States less dependent on foreign oil is to drill for more of it in this country -- particularly in Alaska. This was a status quo bill, and this, as far as energy is concerned, is a status quo administration.
The president is not interested in dismantling the system of tax breaks and subsidies that favor fossil fuels over other energy sources. With the exception of hydrogen fuel cells, which are unlikely to be viable anytime soon, he has not been interested in seeking alternatives to fossil fuels. Nor has he been overly concerned about the climate change and air quality problems connected to heavy use of fossil fuels. He has run U.S. energy policy as if he were still the governor of Texas: The priorities of the oil and gas industry always come first.
By contrast, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) has a long record of interest in domestic conservation, particularly in gasoline conservation. His campaign literature continues to advocate the use of incentives -- which could mean taxes, tax credits, regulation or some combination -- to dramatically improve automobile efficiency, as well as heating and manufacturing efficiency, thereby reducing energy use. True, many of the campaign's production-boosting proposals, such as the construction of a natural gas pipeline to Alaska, have been around for a long time, and some, such as a plan to "develop new resources" in non-OPEC countries, are unlikely to bring great results. But Mr. Kerry has also talked often about more radical options, such as a harder push for new "clean" coal technology, or a serious attempt to accelerate the use of biomass fuels. These are proposals that the current administration has not seriously considered.
Like the president, Mr. Kerry talks about "energy independence." While this is not, in itself, a realizable goal, a sincere attempt to wean the nation away from fossil fuels (which will always be more plentiful elsewhere) could contribute to national security as well as to air quality and climate stability. Mr. Kerry should explain how he plans to persuade industry to cooperate with these changes, and how he intends to pay for them. But given the real possibility of a new energy crisis, we welcome Mr. Kerry's attempts to think outside the box, focus on new technology and find ways to make more fundamental changes in the nation's energy policy than anyone has yet attempted.
This is one in a series of editorials comparing the records and programs of the presidential candidates on important issues. Others can be found at www.washingtonpost.com/opinion.