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Second Presidential Debate: More Energy, But Not On Renewables

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) participate in the second presidential debate. | Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

There was some mention of renewable energy in Tuesday's Presidential debate at Hofstra University in new York, but if you sneezed during the proceedings you may well have missed it. Aside from a mention of jobs from wind turbine manufacturing in the U.S. -- for which both President Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney expressed support -- and a quick reference to fuel economy standards by the president, all the debate's substantive energy talk involved both candidates positioning themselves as the better friend to the fossil fuel industry.

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Mitt Romney was essentially silent on the renewables issue, perhaps as a result of his having been fact-checked to within an inch of his life for his "Solyndra" comments in the previous debate. The one real mention of alternative energy policy came early in the debate, from President Obama:

we've got to control our own energy, you know, not only oil and natural gas, which we've been investing in, but also we've got to make sure we're building the energy sources 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.

Shortly thereafter, in response to a question about gasoline prices, the President continued:

But what I've also said is we can't just produce traditional sources of energy; we've also got to look to the future. That's why we doubled fuel efficiency standards on cars. That means that in the middle of the next decade, any car you buy, you're going to end up going twice as far on a gallon of gas. That's why we've doubled clean energy production like wind and solar and biofuels. And all these things have contributed to us lowering our oil imports to the lowest levels in 16 years.

Romney did offer some lip service to the renewables sector, in the context of his all-of-the-above energy policy:

I believe very much in our renewable capabilities -- ethanol, wind, solar will be an important part of our energy mix. But what we don't need is to have the president keeping us from taking advantage of oil, coal and gas.

In a subsequent discussion of energy sector jobs, Obama made an oblique reference to Romney's earlier "Solyndra" arguments, a well as to his opposiition to extending the Wind Production Tax Credit:

So for example, on 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 credits to help this work and Governor Romney says, I'm opposed, I'd get rid of it, that's not an energy strategy for the future.

To which Romney replied

I don't have a policy of -- of stopping wind jobs in Iowa and that -- they're not phantom jobs. They're real jobs.... I appreciate wind jobs in Iowa and across our country.

And that, as far as renewable energy is concerned, was it.

The rest of the energy discussion consisted essentially of Romney declaring that Obama was opposed to oil and gas exploration on public lands, and that the administration had charged the Environmental Protection Agency with obstructing any new coal-fired power plants. Obama's response on the coal charge was to refer to Romney's 2003 press event in front of a coal-fired plant in Massachusetts, in which he said "this plant kills people," a tempting zinger but one which served to position the President as coal's better friend. Obama clarified that his support for coal was predicated on the adoption of "clean coal" technology, which exists for the most part in the offices of the coal companies' PR firms.

Obama rebutted Romney's charges regarding public lands oil and gas drilling by claiming -- more or less correctly -- that public lands drilling has actually gone up during his term. He continued:

Now, I want to build on that. And that means, yes, we still continue to open up new areas for drilling. We continue to make a -- it a priority for us to go after natural gas. We've got potentially 600,000 jobs and a hundred years' worth of energy right beneath our feet with natural gas. And we can do it in an environmentally sound way. But we've also got to continue to figure out how we have efficient energy, because ultimately that's how we're going to reduce demand, and that's what's going to keep gas prices lower.

And that's the energy portion of the debate encapsulated. Both candidates paid what was essentially lip service to renewable energy, though Obama's lip service was more believable, given real-world context. And both spent most of their time discussing energy in the context of supporting further fossil fuel exploration, development, and consumption,

And the word "climate" was mentioned not once during the debate.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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