Presidential Positions are Clear but Congressional Views will Muddy Them

Obama and Romney Have Dignified Discussions

Ken Silverstein | Oct 04, 2012


Both men were dignified. Both men were respectful. But President Obama and Governor Romney disagreed on where they would take this country and especially on matters of energy.

While the subjects of coal, oil and pipelines came up early in the presidential debate on Wednesday evening, the issues were never thoroughly hashed out. Still, Americans were able to get a sense of how each candidate would use his potential presidential pulpit to advance public policy.

Both men toned down their harsh rhetoric but Obama stood by government’s involvement in the green energy sector and his opposition to maintaining uncommon support to the oil industry. Romney, meanwhile, let it be known that achieving energy independence is a primary goal and that making use of the nation’s oil, gas and coal reserves are vital to that effort. At the same time, he says that he, too, likes green energy but that it sops up too much national wealth.

“By the way, I like coal,” Romney said during the debate. “I’ll make sure we buy clean coal.” The Republican candidate did not elaborate on that quip that came after a longer soliloquy involving his unconditional support of more oil and gas drilling on federal lands -- also where he criticized the president for limiting such opportunities by making permits harder to come by.

With respect to coal, President Obama is funding the research and development of advanced coal technologies through his stimulus measure that passed in February 2009. Such programs include those on carbon capture and sequestration as well as coal gasification that uses equipment to scrub coal of its impurities before it would leave the smokestack. Coal, per se, is the dirtiest fuel source of them all -- unless these new technologies can be effectively demonstrated.

Obama’s position has been that he would enforce the provisions of the Clean Air Act as a way to limit pollution from coal but that his administration would continue to fund modern coal technologies. Romney would probably continue such support but he would loosen or slow down the current environmental regulations until the point that such technologies would become more mainstream. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue, meaning some feel the new regs would hasten investment in such tools while others feel that regs are preceding the available equipment, and hurting utilities as a result.

Coal or Green?

In response to sharp criticisms, coal's proponents have launched similar attacks on green energy. They have been saying that if fuels such as wind and solar were economically viable, they would not need government support. But they have shown themselves to be unreliable, and must be firmed up by one of the fossil fuels so that the lights don’t flicker. We all like clean air, they say. But we enjoy sustainable businesses and households even more.

Obama emphasizes that he, too, supports the fossil fuel industries but that production must be done safely and cleanly. He repeated during the debate that oil and gas production has increased under his administration and that oil exports are down. In fact, government statistics show that foreign oil imports are down from 57 percent to 45 percent, all since 2008. Offshore drilling had been curtailed in the wake of the BP oil spill but new and stricter rules have since been implemented.

Still, the president has made it a point to say that the oil industry gets some uncommon tax breaks that are not given to small businesses. The oil sector maintains that the tax credits it is getting ensure that producers are motivated to take enormous risks so that the country can maintain supply. But Obama would like to eradicate at least some of those, saying that with $4 a gallon gasoline, their incentives are unusually high as it is. He would, instead, use a portion of that money to help the wind, solar and biofuels.

“The oil industry gets $4 billion a year in corporate welfare,” Obama said during the debate. “They get deductions that small businesses don’t get. Does anybody think that ExxonMobil needs money when they make money every time you go to the pump?”

What might be fodder for future debates? In the energy world, the conspicuous one is climate change. Think Progress, for example, would ask Romney what scientific evidence he has seen since 2005 that would have caused him to shift his position on whether climate change is man-made and particularly in light of 2010 National Academy of Sciences report that shows the link is ever stronger. Similarly, it would ask Obama about the specific steps he would take to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in his second term.

American citizens and energy stakeholders witnessed a respectful debate -- but one in which they will have clear distinctions from which to choose. While any president will possess a powerful podium, they must still work with a sharply divided Congress and thus no policy is likely to be purely partisan.

EnergyBiz Insider has been awarded the Gold for Original Web Commentary presented by the American Society of Business Press Editors. The column is also the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein

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