As oil prices rise, the two leading presidential candidates are advocating energy plans with similar contours that focus on an elusive goal: reducing dependence on foreign oil.
But while the energy proposals put forward by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and President Bush discuss many of the same general solutions, they emphasize different approaches.
Bush goes further in advocating more domestic production, including drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Kerry emphasizes energy conservation and alternative fuels.
The candidates repeat many of the same basic ideas. They call for tax incentives for producing oil, gas, "clean coal" and alternative energy. They also support tax credits for purchasing high-mileage vehicles and a natural gas pipeline from Alaska. Each would spend federal funds on research into hydrogen, which some advocates say could eventually be used to power fuel cells that emit no pollution.
Neither plan would fundamentally change the country's energy outlook or address high energy prices anytime soon, said Mary H. Novak, managing director of energy services for Global Insight, a consulting firm in Lexington, Mass.
"They're not that different," Novak said of the competing plans. "It's a question of the degree to which one tries to close that gap from trying to moderate demand growth versus the incentives that you give for increased production."
Novak said the plans gloss over the most effective ways to reduce oil consumption: increasing fuel economy requirements for vehicles or increasing taxes for gasoline. Overall mileage of new U.S. vehicles has decreased slightly, to about 21 miles per gallon from the late-1980s peak of 22 miles per gallon. But a number of SUVs that have come on the market in recent years are heavy enough to be excluded from the averages.
As a senator, Kerry has supported significantly higher fuel economy standards, but as a presidential candidate he has not given specifics. "We're not locked in hard and fast to any specific number," said Kerry's policy director, Sarah Bianchi. "We want to sit down with all the parties involved."
The automobile industry and some lawmakers who represent parts of the country that include auto manufacturers have helped block significant increases in mileage standards. They argue that requiring higher mileage would be expensive and tend to make vehicles lighter and less safe.
Bush has backed small increases in mileage standards for SUVs and light trucks but has opposed large increases. "The administration is open to looking at new ideas and technological advances in keeping with the principle of protecting safety and ensuring consumer choices," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said.
Both candidates say that to help moderate prices and promote national security, the nation needs to rely less on foreign oil, which accounts for about 63 percent of the 20 million barrels a day consumed domestically. Kerry focuses on independence from oil from the Middle East.
Simply reducing imports from one part of the world, however, will not reduce prices, analysts noted, because prices are set on a global market.
Energy has not become a focal point of the campaign, even though prices of natural gas, crude oil, gasoline and electricity have been rising and economists have warned that energy costs are a drag on economic growth. World oil prices have risen most significantly as demand, particularly from China, has increased and the world pumps oil at close to capacity.
On the campaign trail, the candidates have sounded similar themes.
"I have a real energy plan to harness the full force of America's technology and make this nation independent of Middle East oil in 10 years," Kerry said in a recent speech in New Mexico. "My plan will increase fuel efficiency, lower energy prices, produce alternative and renewable sources of energy and create new jobs here at home. I want an America that relies on its own ingenuity and innovation, not the Saudi royal family."
Speaking to an audience in Las Vegas, Bush said recently: "My plan encourages conservation. It encourages the use of renewables like ethanol and biodiesel. It encourages new technologies. It encourages clean coal technologies and increased domestic production. To keep jobs here, our nation must become less dependent on foreign sources of energy."
The two candidates differ most starkly on new domestic production. Bush says that as part of a broad energy plan, the United States must increase production of oil and natural gas by tapping the Alaska refuge and increasing production elsewhere. The administration says the production can be done in an environmentally safe manner.
Kerry calls for increasing production in areas already open for drilling, fearing oil production would despoil the environment in the refuge and some other areas where Bush wants to drill. Kerry's campaign, however, said he would consider opening some other areas to new production.