7 Powerful Themes in the 2012 Presidential Election: Obama vs. Romney on Energy Policy

Today’s post is written by our summer volunteer, Alice Chang. Alice is a sophomore at Claremont McKenna College, majoring in Economics-Government. Though she grew up in Shanghai and learned Chinese as her first language, she moved to Seattle at the age of 10 and considers herself a full Seattle-lite: canvas bag-toting, bus-riding, coffee-drinking and all. Her interests include eating ethnic food, promoting environmental justice and watching Suits.

As November nears, gasoline prices are on the rise again, ensuring that energy remains one of the frontlines issues in this year’s presidential election. Though many people have noted the candidate’s similarities when it comes to energy policy, they still starkly contrast on some issues, particularly questions of where and how to procure our energy. Not only do energy policies affect every US resident, they also impact the environment. Here’s a quick guide to each candidate’s stance on some of today’s key energy issues.

1)   On the Keystone XL Pipeline:

Obama rejected TransCanada’s earlier application for the Keystone XL pipeline, but has recently allowed permitting to begin on a segment of the pipeline in Texas.

Romney has said he would approve the Keystone project immediately to create jobs and increase domestic oil production.

The proposed pipeline would run through the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska. This large freshwater reserve provides our country with 20 percentof its irrigation water for agriculture. An oil leak could destroy the aquifer’s value to locals, farmers and the national food system.

Renewable energy like solar photovoltaics and wind turbines does not use nearly as much water as fossil fuel and nuclear power generation, yet some try to pair off natural gas and nuclear energy with renewables and package them as “clean” energy.

2)   On ANWR:

Obama refuses to allow oil drilling in ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), while Romney would open up access to expand domestic oil production. Drilling in ANWR could have devastating ecological impacts, and might not even lower gas prices or produce as much oil as predicted.

3)   On Natural Gas Fracking:

Obama supports natural gas extraction through the controversial hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) process in hopes to create 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade. He believes that natural gas is the first and foremost new source of energy.

Romney hopes to deregulate the industry and streamline permitting in order to “accelerate the exploration and development of oil and gas.”

Both candidates have similar positions on natural gas; most notably that both want to wean the US off of foreign oil and protect our nation’s energy security. Since fracking may adversely impact our agriculture and water supplies,voters must be aware of this frontline energy policy issue.

4)   On Coal:

Obama has set a 10-year goal to develop and deploy “clean coal” technology, a part of his “all-of-the-above” strategy. Many people see “clean coal” as an oxymoron and a way to allow fossil fuel industries to further decrease regulations. The 2009 Recovery Act invested in carbon capture and sequestration research.

Romney’s campaign has denounced Obama’s policies as a "War on Coal." Romney hopes to win swing states, such as Ohio, by attacking new regulations for coal-fired power plant emissions and mountaintop removal mining, arguing along with the coal industry that such policies affect jobs. However, coal production has fallen from 1.2 billion tons per year to 808 million tons per year mainly as a result of cheaper gas prices, not from stricter emissions regulations.

The process of extracting coal and using it to harness energy requires large amounts of water, such as for mountaintop removal mining and power plant cooling, both of which harm surrounding ecosystems and often release toxins that can harm nearby residents.

5)   On Energy Subsidies:

If re-elected, Obama wants the federal government to continue playing a role in promoting renewable energythrough investments in solar, wind and biofuels and through funding clean energy innovation hubs, to move the nation away from fossil fuels. Between 2007 and 2010, 77 percentof the increase of federal energy subsidies (from $17.9 billion to $37.2 billion) resulted from Obama administration’s economic stimulus law. He also called for ending the annual $4 billion in tax breaks to US oil companies.

If elected, Romney says he will remove subsidies for alternative energy, citing his belief in the free market. However, he supports tax cuts for large oil corporations. Ironically, Romney supported the subsidization of renewable energy while governor of Massachusetts.

The influence of the oil and gas industry lobby on the U.S. Congress continues to dominate this issue, as a recent failed vote to cut an oil subsidy illustrated: Those Senate member who voted against the subsidy cut collectively took  in about $24 million in industry campaign donations, while those who voted for it only received about $5 million.

6)   On Green Jobs:

Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors suggests 225,000 clean energy jobs were created or preserved through the 3rd quarter of 2010. Despite the positive trend, the pace still falls far short of Obama’s 2008 campaign goal to invest $15 billion a year in renewable energy and create 5 million green collar workers within a decade.

Romney has implied green jobs are illusory and are not substantive and destroy more jobs than they create.

Green jobs are seen as a way to stimulate our national economy while benefiting the environment through jobs that support establishing more energy or water efficient infrastructure, building clean energy plants or conducting architectural retrofits.

7)   On Clean Energy:

“You can either stand up for the oil companies, or you can stand up for the American people,” President Obama has said. “You can keep subsidizing a fossil fuel that’s been getting taxpayer dollars for a century, or you can place your bets on a clean-energy future.” Obama’s all-of-the-above strategy also allows for continued drilling, but his main focus of expansion is still on clean energy.

Romney prefers to concentrate alternative energy funding on basic research, instead of investing money and time on actually deploying wind farms and solar installations, which he claims are not economically competitive.

Renewable energy, such as solar photovoltaics and wind turbines, does not use nearly as much water as fossil fuel and nuclear power generation, yet some try to pair off natural gas and nuclear energy with renewables and package them as “clean” energy.  Voters must be wary of such distinctions, and be cognizant of each candidate’s policy platform to ensure that our nation can grow sustainably and become more energy independent.