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McCain Champions Greener Government, But Averts Topic of Offshore Drilling

The Republican presidential candidate hosts an energy forum at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Not everyone welcomes him with open arms.

Speaking at Tuesday’s energy roundtable at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History were, from left, former CIA Director James Woolsey; Mike Feeney, executive director of the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County; presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain; Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; and Matt Tirrell, a UCSB professor and founder of the Institute of Energy Efficiency. (Rod Rolle photo)

In front of a packed house at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain on Tuesday proposed offering tax breaks to consumers who buy hybrid vehicles, asserted that the federal government should start purchasing energy-efficient automobiles and acknowledged that the burning of fossil fuels may exacerbate global warming.

But the Arizona senator made no mention of a matter that has raised the ire of local Democrats and environmentalists: his recent change of heart on the idea of lifting a moratorium on expanding offshore oil drilling, which he once opposed but now supports. It is a particularly touchy topic in Santa Barbara, home of the devastating 1969 oil spill, which is widely credited with sparking the environmental movement.

In fact, Tuesday morning’s event was preceded by a sizable anti-oil-drilling protest outside the museum — among the largest the McCain camp has dealt with on the campaign trail, according to Fox News. McCain did not mention the protest during his remarks.

“In recent days, I’ve been laying out a clear agenda to break our dependency on foreign oil,” McCain said at the event, which featured four other panelists, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has endorsed McCain. “I’m very confident we’re up to the task.”

McCain, who arrived in the area earlier this week to attend two fund-raisers, was welcomed to Santa Barbara County with immediate criticism from Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who, during a Monday conference call with reporters, blasted him for his “flip-flop” on offshore oil.

“We’ve had two oil men in the White House, and John McCain is joining them,” Boxer said, referring to President Bush and his father, former President George Bush.

Perhaps aware that Democrats are trying to draw that comparison, McCain on Tuesday seemed intent on distancing himself from Bush’s energy record, saying it is time to “shake off years of partisan paralysis.”

McCain drew applause when he advocated a move that Bush thus far has resisted: easing foreign dependency by tapping into “our vast reserve of oil and gas.” The United States is storing about 700 million barrels in its Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Bush has refused to draw upon it, saying the reserves are there to deliver oil to Americans in times of dire emergencies. They were tapped during the first Persian Gulf War and after Hurricane Katrina.

On Tuesday, Schwarzenegger, who opposes lifting the moratorium but made no mention of it Tuesday, seemed to take a swipe at Bush while warming up the crowd for McCain: “I have every confidence that if Sen. McCain is in the White House, America can get back into the game of having a sensible, consistent and forward-looking energy policy.”

If elected president, McCain said he would offer a $300 million reward to any company that can improve the fuel efficiency of battery-powered hybrid cars. He also advocated a $5,000 tax break for people who purchase zero-emission cars.

McCain promised to ensure that the federal government, which purchases 60,000 vehicles a year, would favor those of the energy-efficient variety, such as flex-fuel cars and hybrids.

“Energy efficiency, like charity, should begin at home,” he said. “It should start with the federal fleet.”

McCain also took time to lament some of the grim signs of global warming: shrinking glaciers, melting polar ice sheets, and sudden changes in the patterns of animal migration “in the wilds of Alaska.”

“We face a long-term danger,” he said, but added that he wants to take a “common sense” approach to tackling the problem by “staying on a course of economic growth.”

One of the panel speakers openly questioned parts of McCain’s stances on energy issues.

Mike Feeney, executive director of the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, criticized McCain’s support for more offshore drilling, saying that even after the oil enters the market it would barely put a dent in America’s dependency on foreign oil.

He also took issue with McCain’s enthusiasm for generating energy by building more nuclear power plants, saying existing plants are failing to properly dispose of the radioactive waste.

“I think too rosy of a face is being put on it,” he said. “All of us have to change. We’re never going to see $2.50-a-gallon gasoline in this country again, and we shouldn’t.”

True to form, McCain did not back down, responding that nuclear power works well in Europe.

“My friend, the technology is there,” he said. “Eighty percent of French electricity is generated by nuclear power. They are doing fine.”

Also speaking at Tuesday’s event was former CIA Director James Woolsey, and Matt Tirrell, a UCSB professor and founder of the Institute of Energy Efficiency.

Click here for the text of McCain’s prepared remarks at the Santa Barbara environmental and energy briefing.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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