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Environmental Stances Are Balancing Act For McCain

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 12, 2008

In December 2005, Republicans were poised to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, an achievement they had sought for decades. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) had attached the provision to a must-pass defense spending bill and threatened to keep lawmakers in Washington until Christmas if they tried to strip it. Desperate to remove the provision, leaders from national environmental groups turned to a handful of key GOP senators for help.

With only days left before the critical vote, League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski and Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund President Rodger Schlickheisen obtained a private audience with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). McCain had been on both sides of the Arctic drilling issue over the course of his career, and the two leaders of the fight against opening the refuge were eager to know whether he would come down in their column.

His answer disappointed them. In the brief meeting, the senator said he was unwilling to risk blocking a bill involving the military at a time of war -- even though it was clear the broader funding bill would pass quickly and by a wide margin if opponents managed to strip the ANWR provision from it. "We told him, 'This may be the key vote, this may be the time we win this,' " Schlickheisen recalled in an interview. "He said, 'Not on this bill.' That was it."

Ultimately environmental activists were able to defeat the measure with the aid of two Republican senators -- Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) and Mike DeWine (Ohio). But they have not forgotten McCain's decision, and many say it exemplifies his approach to environmental issues.

"There's no question that among a lot of bad Republican votes in the Senate, he's one of the better ones," Schlickheisen said. "He is perhaps the most unpredictable, erratic, of those votes."

McCain has made the environment one of the key elements of his presidential bid. He speaks passionately about the issue of climate change on the campaign trail, and he plans to outline his vision for combating global warming in a major speech today in Portland, Ore.

"I'm proud of my record on the environment," he said at a news conference Friday at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City. "As president, I will dedicate myself to addressing the issue of climate change globally."

But an examination of McCain's voting record shows an inconsistent approach to the environment: He champions some "green" causes while casting sometimes contradictory votes on others.

The senator from Arizona has been resolute in his quest to impose a federal limit on greenhouse gas emissions, even when it means challenging his own party. But he has also cast votes against tightening fuel-efficiency standards and resisted requiring public utilities to offer a specific amount of electricity from renewable sources. He has worked to protect public lands in his home state, winning a 2001 award from the National Parks Conservation Association for helping give the National Park Service some say over air tours around the Grand Canyon, work that prompts former interior secretary and Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt to call him "a great friend of the canyon." But he has also pushed to set aside Endangered Species Act protections when they conflict with other priorities, such as the construction of a University of Arizona observatory on Mount Graham.

Doug Holtz-Eakin, McCain's senior policy adviser, said the senator does not always please "environmental groups who are single-issue, litmus test" organizations. Instead, he said, McCain seeks to weigh the costs and benefits of each environmental issue.

"Look, he always balances what are the environmental implications of these enterprises and what are the economic benefits that could come from them," Holtz-Eakin said. "That is, in general, an approach which may be harder to read than a flat ideological X or Y, but it's how he reads these things, it's how he evaluates these kinds of decisions."

As a result, McCain scores significantly lower than his Democratic rivals for the presidency, Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), in interest groups' studies of his environmental voting record. McCain's lifetime League of Conservation Voters score is 24 percent, compared with 86 for Obama and 86 for Clinton; Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund's conservation report card gave him 38 percent in the 108th Congress and 40 in the 109th. (McCain has missed every major environmental vote this Congress, giving him a zero rating.)

When Karpinski tells audiences about McCain's environmental scorecard rating, he said, "jaws drop. . . . I tell them, 'He's not as green as you think he is.' "

Obama has already sought to exploit this on the campaign trail: While campaigning in Bend, Ore., on Saturday he said McCain "opposed real solutions to our dependence on oil time and time again." In response, McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds noted that Obama had supported the 2005 energy bill, which provided tax breaks for oil companies, while McCain did not.

The Republican's backers, and some environmentalists, say McCain deserves credit for taking the political risk of talking about these issues both on the Senate floor and in a GOP primary where he stood out as the only candidate committed to a specific target for reducing greenhouse gases. McCain supports cutting greenhouse gases 60 percent by the middle of this century compared with 1990 levels; Obama and Clinton back an 80 percent cut over the same period.

"There's no question he was both moved and troubled by the visible impact of climate change," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), who has traveled with McCain to investigate the effects of global warming. "This is inside him now. . . . He stood up against the president of his own party, and the majority of members of his own party. I think that makes him an environmental leader."

On the campaign trail, McCain is more than eager to go toe-to-toe with skeptics of global warming who attend his town hall forums. When a man in Michigan asked him last week why the United States was not drilling in the Arctic refuge and off California's coasts, McCain replied that, as a federalist, he thinks states have the right to make those decisions.

"I can't say we should drill in the most pristine parts of America," he told the questioner, adding that he believes in finding new sources of oil, "But I also believe sooner or later we have got to become energy-independent, we've got to reduce greenhouse gases. That means nuclear, wind, solar, tide, et cetera."

Holtz-Eakin said McCain is flexible in his federalist approach when it comes to the question of drilling because, while many Alaskans support opening the Arctic refuge to oil and gas exploration, the senator has concluded that it's not worth exposing 250 species of wildlife there to damage.

For the most part, McCain follows a fairly instinctive approach to deciding environmental questions. In recent interviews he has said he thinks the government should list polar bears as endangered because shrinking sea ice threatens their survival, that sharks deserve protection because they're a crucial part of the marine food web, and that the nation needs to act on climate change because it risks an environmental catastrophe if it doesn't.

The senator does not boast an extensive staff of experts on these issues, however, and doesn't delve into the scientific and policy details the way former vice president Al Gore or some of his Senate colleagues do. In one conversation on his "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus, he voiced his frustration with activists who oppose nuclear power plants.

"We start building nuclear power plants, we'll have cheaper energy. Duh," he said.

Tim Profeta, who directs Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and served as Lieberman's counsel on the environment from 2001 to 2005, said McCain feels strongly about addressing climate change but often resists wading into the legislative weeds.

"He's really focused on the impacts and the problems climate change will beget, and the need for action," Profeta said, "but he has, I believe, worked with what Lieberman and his staff saw as the appropriate policy approach."

As a result, many advocates said they remain uncertain as to how McCain would tackle environmental issues if elected president this fall. They are still waiting to see whether he will vote in favor of Lieberman's latest climate bill, which is headed to the Senate next month.

"Global warming is the most pressing environmental issue facing the country, and Senator McCain carved a path of leadership on the issue in the past," said Jeremy Symons, who directs the National Wildlife Federation's campaign on global warming. "A lot of people are looking to see how he's going to handle it in his campaign, and as president."

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