Mitt Romney and Barack Obama at second debate

Reuters / Lucas Jackson

Energy issues were front and center at Tuesday night’s presidential debate, starting right with the candidates’ first set of answers. But that wasn’t good news for climate hawks.

Climate change got not a single mention — partly the fault of moderator Candy Crowley. After the debate, Crowley said on CNN that one of the town-hall audience members had wanted to ask a climate question, but she didn’t call on that person.

Of course, the candidates still could have mentioned climate change during their discussions about energy, and they didn’t. Instead, President Obama and Mitt Romney both reiterated their all-too-familiar talking points — Obama talking about an “all of the above” energy policy and putting some emphasis on a clean energy future, Romney talking about an “all of the above” energy policy and putting a lot of emphasis on the dirty fuels of the past.

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Romney took some knocks from fact-checkers for his energy statements. Romney also took some knocks straight from Obama — but, depressingly, most of them consisted of the president defending fossil-fuel development.

Gas prices

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In an exchange over gas prices, Romney said that when Obama took office, gasoline was selling for about $1.86 a gallon and now it’s at $4.00 a gallon. As analysts have pointed out over and over again, that low price in January 2009 was an anomaly because the economy was in free fall and had sent demand plummeting.

That gave Obama a lead-in for one of his best lines of the night:

[I]t’s conceivable that Governor Romney could bring down gas prices because with his policies, we might be back in that same mess.

A good moment for Obama — inasmuch as a president touting increased gasoline demand can be good.

Oil drilling

The candidates got into a spat over oil drilling on public lands. Romney said “oil production is down 14 percent this year on federal land, and gas production was down 9 percent. Why? Because the president cut in half the number of licenses and permits for drilling on federal lands, and in federal waters.” When Obama tried to respond, Romney reverted to prep-school bully mode and interrupted over and over, but Obama finally got this out:

Here’s what happened. You had a whole bunch of oil companies who had leases on public lands that they weren’t using. So what we said was you can’t just sit on this for 10, 20, 30 years, decide when you want to drill, when you want to produce, when it’s most profitable for you. These are public lands. So if you want to drill on public lands, you use it or you lose it. And so what we did was take away those leases. And we are now reletting them so that we can actually make a profit.

Fact-checking site PolitiFact says that Romney’s 14 percent figure, which refers to the change between 2010 and 2011, is “cherry-picked,” and that the drop-off can be largely blamed on the BP oil disaster.

“From a statistical standpoint, to take one year out of three — one year is not indicative of a trend,” [said Jay Hakes, former head of the U.S. Energy Information Administration].

So we pulled the numbers from when George W. Bush was in office — January 2001 to January 2009 — as well as from when Obama was in office. …

• From 2004-08, well into Bush’s tenure, oil production on federal lands and waters fell in four of five years, for a net decrease of 16.8 percent.

• From 2009-11, the Obama years, oil production rose two of three years, for a net increase of 10.6 percent. [emphasis mine]

And, as Politico’s fact-checkers point out, a president can’t do much of anything about gas prices anyway.

So that’s a win for Obama — inasmuch as a president bragging about increasing oil drilling is a win worth winning.


At another point, Romney questioned Obama’s commitment to fossil fuels, saying the president “has not been Mr. Oil, or Mr. Gas, or Mr. Coal.” Obama couldn’t let that stand. He said it was Romney who has not been loyal enough to coal.

[W]hen I hear Gov. Romney say he’s a big coal guy, I mean, keep in mind, when — Governor, when you were governor of Massachusetts, you stood in front of a coal plant and pointed at it and said, “This plant kills,” and took great pride in shutting it down.

That’s true. In 2003, standing in front of the Salem Harbor Power Station, Romney did say “that plant kills people.” And Obama’s been using that line to bash Romney in a campaign ad, much to the chagrin of enviros.

Again, a hit for Obama — inasmuch as a president claiming to be the bigger friend to the coal industry is a hit worth hitting.

Keystone XL

Romney said, once again, that he really, really wants to build the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline:

We’re going to bring that pipeline in from Canada. How in the world the president said no to that pipeline? I will never know.

Obama responded:

And with respect to this pipeline that Governor Romney keeps on talking about, we’ve — we’ve built enough pipeline to wrap around the entire earth once.

So, I’m all for pipelines. I’m all for oil production.

Nice line about pipelines wrapping around the globe. But Obama really is all for pipelines and oil production. He had to be forced by mass protest to delay a decision on the northern half of Keystone, and he enthusiastically approved the southern half.

So another point for Obama — inasmuch as … oh, you get the point.

Wind power

Finally, on the subject of wind power, Obama got a hit on Romney that didn’t involve defending filthy fuels.

[O]n wind energy, when Governor Romney says “these are imaginary jobs.” When you’ve got thousands of people right now in Iowa, right now in Colorado, who are working, creating wind power with good-paying manufacturing jobs, and the Republican senator in that — in Iowa is all for it, providing tax breaks to help this work and Governor Romney says, “I’m opposed. I’d get rid of it.”

Romney responded, “I don’t have a policy of stopping wind jobs in Iowa and that — they’re not phantom jobs. They’re real jobs.”

But Romney did call the clean energy economy “imaginary” in a March 2012 op-ed in The Columbus Dispatch: “In place of real energy, Obama has focused on an imaginary world where government-subsidized windmills and solar panels could power the economy.”

And Romney does oppose a key wind tax credit that’s due to expire at the end of the year — a tax credit that Republicans from wind-power states, including Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, support. If it’s allowed to expire, it could wipe out 37,000 jobs.

The bottom line

Obama did talk during the debate about building a clean energy economy: “we’ve got to make sure we’re building the energy source of the future, not just thinking about next year, but 10 years from now, 20 years from now. That’s why we’ve invested in solar and wind and biofuels, energy-efficient cars.”

But in today’s political climate, Obama just doesn’t believe he can turn his back on fossil fuels and still win the election. It’s not even clear that he wants to turn his back on fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate who does repudiate dirty energy, got arrested Tuesday when she tried to enter the debate site.