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Presidential debates’ main energy content an unproductive exchange on gas prices and drilling

2012 November 1

Obama and Romney getting fired up about drilling on public lands

Green groups across the U.S. are groaning over the lack of mention of climate change in the presidential debates, especially as Hurricane Sandy makes landfall. Some would call climate change the biggest foreign policy challenge of our time, and yet it was not even mentioned once by the moderators or either candidate in any of the three debates (see transcripts 12, and 3).

Yet, while there were 270 minutes of climate silence, energy was featured in the debates, with about 20-30 minutes of exchange on the topic. Unfortunately, the time was not well spent. In the first debate, Obama touted his main boiler-plate talking points on creating new sources of energy here in the U.S. from oil, gas, clean coal, and renewables. This strategy has come to be known as the “all of the above” strategy. Meanwhile, Romney said that half of the $90 billion spent in the green stimulus went to companies that have gone out of business. While Obama did not get a chance to rebuke this claim, it has been debunked by many analysts online, since only three out of 33 companies given loan guarantees have failed, while the portfolio of companies as a whole is performing well. It’s also curious that Romney consistently referred to “North American energy independence,” likely due to his well-pronounced support for the Keystone XL pipeline.

In the second debate, an audience member asked a question on energy:

“Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it’s not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?”

Now, here was a golden opportunity to set American voters straight on this question and make sure they understand that domestic oil production will have very little, if any, impact on domestic gasoline prices. Here is what Obama should have said. And while he did mention the fuel economy standards he put in place (he could have also pointed out how his opponent is against these standards), he did not answer the question directly, instead offering facts about how oil and gas production in the U.S. has gone up during his tenure. Once Romney responded, the debate turned into an argument on who was going to drill and burn more fossil fuels, and both candidates got very touchy on the issue of who would drill more on public lands specifically. This was really turning into an ugly exchange.

Romney then claimed that the success of an energy policy could be determined by what people are paying at the pump, arguing that Obama’s policies have pushed gasoline prices above $4 a gallon, while they were at their lowest at $1.80 when he entered office. The moderator emphasized this point, asking “If your energy policy was working, the price of gasoline would not be $4 a gallon here. Is that true?” Obama quickly explained that prices were low due to the impact of the recession and that Romney’s policies would bring us into another recession. He then quipped:

“So it’s conceivable that Governor Romney could bring down gas prices, because with his policies we might be back in that same mess.”

While Obama supporters might want to give him a high-five for that one-liner, the fact is that this was an unproductive exchange on energy and a missed opportunity to correct voters’ expectations on energy. What either candidate should have said was that the government can do almost nothing to control the price at the pump, but they can help control overall spend at the pump through mandated fuel economy standards and better urban planning (to encourage walking, biking, and public transit). We need to stop reinforcing people’s belief that the government can lower gasoline prices and start presenting viable alternatives.

While Obama did mention climate change during his speech at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, saying “my plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet because climate change is not a hoax”, the debates were indeed devoid of any exchange on climate change, which is worrisome. I touched on Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy and its incompatibility with his oft-neglected climate strategy in an eco-rap penned back in March. My main conclusion: “Obama, come November, you got my support, I just hope for the climate record you don’t fall short.”

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