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Presidential Candidates Clash over Energy, not Climate

Obama and Romney throw jabs over who favors domestic oil and gas more while Obama reiterates support for solar, wind, and biofuels.
October 17, 2012

Some of the sharpest barbs thrown in last night’s presidential debate focused on energy. Both candidates stretched the truth in an effort to score political points, but the exchanges served to distinguish the two candidates on this issue.

Tense moments during the second presidential debate occurred over oil and gas policy. Screen capture by Martin LaMonica.

The hottest point of contention was domestic oil and gas production, a topic raised by a voter’s question on gasoline prices. (See full transcript and video here.)

President Obama’s response was that the most important thing the U.S. can do is to control its own energy. He said production of domestic oil and natural gas has increased in his first term and that he also favors advancing alternative energy sources to prepare for the future.

Mitt Romney seized on the issue to assert that the oil and gas boom in the U.S. is happening on private lands and that the president cut in half the number of licenses and permits for drilling on federal lands and in federal waters. He said ethanol, wind, and solar will be an important part of the energy mix, but the president “has not been Mr. Oil or Mr. Gas or Mr. Coal.”

Later, in a back-and-forth confrontation, Romney again said Obama cut leases in half. Obama said, “It’s not true” and stood up to address the question and explain a change in leasing policy. 

Fact checkers at Politico and the New York Times noted that both the Congressional Research Service and the Interior Department found that oil production on public land has increased slightly when comparing to 2007 and 2011. The Interior Department also found that 7,000 drilling permits were not being used by oil companies, according to the New York Times

Romney, in particular, argued that more domestic gas production would lead to lower gasoline prices. Obama seemed to agree with that idea as well, although he noted that the higher vehicle efficiency standards he put in place will lower the amount people pay for gas. The reality, though, is that gasoline prices are dictated by global oil markets, not how much oil the U.S. can produce.

While those exchanges seemed to be about who was more pro-oil and gas, the debate didn’t dig very far into renewable energy policy. 

Obama said supporting renewable energy industries helps the U.S. compete with other countries and voiced his support for extending the tax credit for wind power projects, which could be a significant issue in battleground states Colorado and Iowa, where there are thousands of people employed in the wind industry. (See “Siemens Layoffs Portend U.S. Wind Slowdown”). 

Although he didn’t have a chance to fully explain his position on wind, Romney’s policy papers and representatives have said he opposes extending the wind tax credit and government subsidies for renewable energy. Instead, the government should fund basic research in all types of energy.

Meanwhile, the question of climate change, which moderator Candy Crowley had ready to go, never came up in a debate focused more on the economy. In an event at MIT two weeks ago, representatives did address that issue and energy in detail.

Romney’s domestic policy director said the way to address climate change is by promoting energy innovation through research, not international agreements to cap emissions. Obama’s policy representative noted that Obama supported a cap-and-trade bill and a national clean energy standard, neither of which mustered enough congressional support. In the absence of legislation, his administration would seek to address climate change through the EPA and the enforcement of the Clean Air Act. (See “Romney Aide: Reducing Carbon Emissions from Coal Isn’t a Legitimate Goal.”)

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