President Obama touted his oil and gas record while Republican challenger Mitt Romney voiced support for wind energy in a debate last night that saw the candidates sometimes bend the facts and shift priorities to stake their claim on an "all of the above" energy strategy.
The town-hall-style debate -- the second in a series of three presidential debates -- marked the first time Obama and Romney have confronted each other on energy issues in such detail. And with details came plenty of opportunities to murk up the facts.
Energy issues took center stage early on in the night, when an audience member asked the candidates whether the Department of Energy should be responsible for helping to lower gasoline prices. What followed was less a discussion than a verbal bar fight over everything from domestic oil production to the little-known Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
At one point, Obama and Romney engaged in a back-and-forth debate over who was telling the truth, with Obama challenging Romney on his assertion that oil production on federal lands has decreased.
"In the last four years, you cut permits and licenses on federal land and federal waters in half," Romney said, beginning an exchange where the candidates seemed close to blows.
Romney: "And production on private -- on government land --"
Obama: "Production is up."
Romney: "-- is down."
Obama: "No, it isn't."
Romney: "Production on government land of oil is down 14 percent."
The truth is more nuanced. While oil production on federal lands and waters did dip nearly 14 percent in fiscal 2011 compared with the previous year, it increased when Obama first took office. In 2008, for example, oil production on such lands was 565 million barrels, according to Department of the Interior data; in 2010, that number was 726.
Some experts blame the decrease on the administration's drilling moratorium that stalled deepwater exploration in the months after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Oil production in the Gulf declined nearly 17 percent between fiscal 2010 and 2011, to 514 million barrels from 618 million (Greenwire, Feb. 27).
But such distinctions were sometimes lost in last night's debate. Instead, Obama and Romney vied for the title of most energy-friendly by touting their dedication to increasing domestic energy production.
Echoing an ad his campaign ran in August, Obama accused Romney of flip-flopping his position on coal.
"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," Obama said. "And now suddenly you're a big champion of coal."
Romney did work to reduce pollution at a Massachusetts coal plant about a decade ago, accusing it of killing people. But he also didn't shut it down -- the plant still operates today.
Romney, meanwhile, accused Obama of creating a hostile environment for coal plants, due to increased regulations from U.S. EPA.
"Coal production is not up. Coal jobs are not up," Romney said, later adding, "I don't think anyone really believes that you're a person who's going to be pushing for oil and gas and coal."
Obama claimed the opposite, saying at one point last night that "we have seen increases in coal production and coal employment."
While there have been layoffs in the coal industry recently, the broader picture is more complex. Analysts say that competition from natural gas and energy markets is to blame for many plants retiring or switching to natural gas, though they also agree that the administration's regulations have made the business tougher (Greenwire, May 25).
That nuance meant Obama and Romney could essentially cherry-pick the facts that helped make their case.
Romney, for his part, brought up a recent Migratory Bird Treaty Act prosecution to make the point that the White House has not been friendly to oil and gas production. The case has provoked considerable anger within the industry, not least because no wind energy operators have been prosecuted under the statute (Greenwire, April 27).
"So where'd the [oil and gas production] increase come from? Well a lot of it came from the Bakken Range in North Dakota," Romney said. "What was his participation there? The administration brought a criminal action against the people drilling up there for oil, this massive new resource we have. And what was the cost? Twenty or 25 birds were killed, and [it] brought out a Migratory Bird Act to go after them on a criminal basis."
Last year, the U.S. attorney in North Dakota charged seven oil companies with misdemeanor violations of the act for the death of more than 25 endangered birds. But in a ruling on Jan. 17, Judge Daniel Hovland of the U.S. District Court for the District of North Dakota dismissed charges against three oil companies.
The decision suggested that companies operating in compliance with all relevant regulations should not be prosecuted, with Hovland writing that the act was not written to "criminalize lawful commercial activity conducted in the oil fields of North Dakota."
According to USA Today, the three other defendants reached plea agreements, and the charges against the final company were dropped by the government.
Climate change ignored -- again
While the candidates talked at length about coal and oil, they also addressed the need for renewables.
"We've got to control our own energy," Obama said early in the debate. "Now, 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 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."
Romney surprised some environmentalists by voicing his support for wind power, after Obama criticized the Republican for his opposition to the production tax credit, which expires for the wind industry at the end of this year.
"Look, I want to make sure we use our oil, our coal, our gas, our nuclear, our renewables," Romney said. "I believe very much in our renewable capabilities; ethanol, wind, solar will be an important part of our energy mix."
But the issue of climate change did not come up directly, though it formed a backdrop for the candidates' sparring over regulation and support for "cleaner" energy sources.
Moderator Candy Crowley said in an interview after the debate with CNN colleagues that she opted not to ask a question on climate change proposed by one of the audience members.
"I had that question, all you climate change people," she said.
But Crowley said she passed over the topic because "we knew that the economy was still the main thing," even though other non-economic issues like gun control were given time.
Advocates for action on climate change had pressed for a question to be included in a debate, and some hoped that last night's town hall forum would allow that to happen.
"There's been a lot of polling lately that shows concern about climate change and global warming on the rise, so to that extent, yes, we're hopeful that one of the voters selected will ask the candidates about it," Mike Palamuso, a spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters, said before the debate.
Twenty members of the group Young Evangelicals for Climate Action carpooled to Long Island to pray that candidates would discuss the issue, which spokesman Ben Lowe called "one of the biggest global challenges facing my generation."
Lowe said that his group was "disappointed but not discouraged" that the issue did not make an appearance. He said he was pleased that both candidates mentioned clean or renewable energy in their comments and acknowledged that Obama "advocated for it a little more."
But what is really needed, he said, is a price on carbon emissions and help for poor people affected by global warming. Cap and trade was a high priority for the president four years ago, but neither candidate is proposing such a policy this time. But Lowe said his group would keep praying for it.
"This is a long fight that we are committed to fighting," he said.
Reporter Manuel Quinones contributed.