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Energy Experts Question Rhetoric of Both Candidates in Presidential Election

One of the more contentious issues in this year's U.S. presidential election has been energy, with Democratic candidate Barack Obama favoring more alternative energy development and criticizing oil companies earning record profits. Republican candidate John McCain has called for more development of domestic oil and gas resources with the slogan "Drill, Baby, Drill." Energy experts see promise in some proposals set forth by the campaigns, but are less enthused about the slogans. VOA's Greg Flakus has more from Houston.

Although the financial crisis has become the dominant issue in this year's election, concern about high energy costs have not disappeared. Fuel prices remain higher than they were four years ago and many people expect them to head back to recent peaks once the economy rebounds.

Barack Obama has called for more government investment in alternative energy, a windfall profits tax on oil companies and, while he has said he would "look at" possibly opening more U.S. coastal areas to exploration and drilling, he has criticized oil companies for not fully using leases they already have.

John McCain favors opening areas for development in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts where drilling has been banned for the past 30 years. He also favors expansion of nuclear energy as well as other alternatives.

Ken Medlock, who teaches energy economics at Rice University, says both candidates have some good ideas, but he says their simplified rhetoric does little to advance the debate.

For example, he notes that Obama's call for energy companies to use leases they currently hold or give them up amounts to an attack on prudent business decisions by those companies. "You may think something is there and once you actually do your due diligence (research), you may figure out that it is not a commercial quantity of oil and so you simply do not develop it."

Medlock says companies hold on to these leases so that they might develop them once operating costs come down or new technologies come along.

Medlock also says Obama's call for a windfall profits tax on oil companies could backfire and leave consumers paying even more at the fuel pump. "If you do anything to have a negative impact on investment, the level of investment, at the end of the day that works back to us because prices go up because there is less supply," he said.

Medlock also finds unrealistic rhetoric in the McCain campaign. He says the call for more drilling off coastal areas is premature since no one really knows if there are commercially exploitable deposits there or not.

"If nothing is there, then nobody is going to drill. People do not drill wells just for the sake of drilling wells. But there is the off chance that we might find a massive deposit somewhere along one of the those places along one of those places along the east coast or the eastern Gulf of Mexico that we simply did not know was there. The point is 'let's reduce uncertainty.' Unfortunately, the 'Drill, Baby, Drill' slogan debases the whole argument," he said.

Medlock says what is needed is a lifting of the ban on exploration to allow an assessment of what resources may be out there.

Medlock says both campaigns talk of a bright future based on alternative energy, but there are costs involved that they often do not take into account. The candidates also favor reducing or even eliminating demand for foreign oil. But Medlock notes that buying imported oil is cheaper than developing some of the resources available domestically or creating new infrastructure to accommodate alternative energy like electricity or compressed natural gas to power transportation.