President Obama survived sustained attacks about his record on coal and other fossil fuels to secure victories last night in key states where energy industries are pivotal to the economy.
In the sharply contested swing states of Ohio and Virginia, where Mitt Romney made the case for expanded production of domestic oil and natural gas, and a defense of the coal industry, Obama cruised to victory, narrowly winning their crucial electoral votes. The president beat Romney in Ohio 50 percent to 48 percent and in Virginia 51 percent to 48 percent, overcoming months of attacks accusing Obama of a "war on coal."
The president also swept every other state that might have tipped either way in last night's contest. The voters sent Obama back to the White House with 303 electoral votes counted as of publication time and 50 percent of the popular vote, compared to 48 percent for Romney. Those critical swing states included Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire and Wisconsin.
"We want our children to live in an America that isn't burdened by debt, that isn't weakened by inequality, that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet," Obama told his supporters in Chicago early this morning after Romney called to congratulate him.
Now, with Obama's second term secured, achieved in part by defending the coal industry, questions are arising about his commitment to address climate change and how he might pursue reductions in greenhouse gases.
They include: Will Obama press for, or even support, a carbon tax as part of the "grand bargain" he envisions negotiating to reduce the deficit? Will he become a climate champion who uses his bully pulpit to elevate the issue's credibility? And is that a believable message from a president who minimized climate change in his campaign, even after a major storm crashed into the East Coast a week ago?
Other political challenges remain for the president, even if he attempts to pass policies that don't overtly restrict carbon emissions, like a clean energy standard. His strongest ally in that fight, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), is retiring in January, though Bingaman's presence still would not ensure passage in a Senate where a handful of Democrats are likely to balk.
"Look, they barely talked about it," Elaine Kamarck, a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a former adviser to Vice President Al Gore, said of the climate issue's being raised by the candidates. "I think anything that happens on climate is going to be in the context of some other issue."
Kamarck asserted there was a "slim chance" that a carbon tax could be included in a wholesale restructuring of the tax code, meant to slash spending and reduce the deficit. And she predicted that clean energy funding will be hard to come by in an Obama administration focused on avoiding mandatory spending cuts and rising taxes on the middle class.
"I think as a stand-alone, it's going to be extremely difficult, because [climate] hasn't been a big part of his campaign," Kamarck said.
Silence during the campaign
Obama said in September that climate change is "one of the biggest issues of this generation," but he only mentioned it intermittently in months of campaigning. He didn't raise the subject during any of his three debates with Mitt Romney, nor has he used Hurricane Sandy as an example of the risks of rising oceans and other climate impacts.
Instead, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg became the most prominent politician to inject global warming into the presidential contest. The political independent endorsed Obama because he believes the president is more willing than Romney to tackle the impacts of greenhouse gases. But Bloomberg's endorsement said more about the mayor's leadership on climate than it did about Obama's.
"Our climate is changing," Bloomberg wrote last week in Bloomberg View. "And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be -- given this week's devastation -- should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action."
It is unclear if Obama will heed that advice between now and 2016, but some moves are already under way. U.S. EPA is expected to complete greenhouse gas standards for the power sector in the near term, and some observers believe the agency could expand those regulations to cover other sectors, like perhaps large industrial facilities. Obama has already used his executive authority to put in place fuel efficiency standards for passenger cars, a policy the administration says will save 12 billion barrels of oil and avoid 6 billion metric tons of carbon pollution by 2025.
Eileen Claussen, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said she believes Obama might continue to use his executive authority to advance climate policies. But his level of urgency could hinge on how painful the process of rebuilding is after the devastating impacts of last week's storm.
"I think the wildcard is Sandy," Claussen said, "and whether the effects of that, and the continuing effects of that -- because the rebuilding is going to take a long time -- will have any effect in mobilizing politicians. That's a big unknown."
"There's a bully pulpit" that Obama could use, Claussen added, "because I think the public may be relatively receptive to the climate change we-need-to-do-something-about-it message, given Sandy and things like Mayor Bloomberg's connection between Sandy and climate change."
After the storm crashed into the East Coast last Monday, killing at least 110 people and leaving millions without power, the president's occasional reference to climate change reappeared at a rally with 18,000 people in Madison, Wis.
"We've got thousands of workers building long-lasting batteries and wind turbines all across the country," Obama said. "And I don't want to subsidize oil company profits. I want to support the energy jobs of tomorrow, the new technologies that will cut our oil imports in half, take some of the carbon out of the atmosphere."
A 'centrist path' emerges?
Wisconsin, one of seven battleground states and the home of Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, gave Obama its 10 electoral votes. The president took 53 percent of the state's vote, compared to Romney's 46 percent.
Others are encouraged by the prospects for clean energy and reduced emissions, if primarily because Romney's loss helps protect tax credits and loan guarantees for a growing renewable sector and a rekindling nuclear power industry.
"The energy and climate landscape has changed dramatically, and for the better, over the last four years, despite gridlock in Washington," said Joshua Freed, director of the Clean Energy Initiative at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. "There's a pragmatic and centrist path toward more clean energy, affordable energy and reduced carbon emissions that the first Obama term started."
He thinks that will continue through the administration's efforts to help speed the transition from coal to natural gas in power plants, and perhaps expand initiatives that encourage more efficient cars.
"My hunch is that the administration will look for ways to accelerate the transition, whether it's encouraging additional innovation in convention vehicles, accelerating the adoption of [electric vehicles] and hybrids or other steps that haven't been rolled out yet," Freed said.
Obama secured a second term last night with the help of Florida, the site of the Republican National Convention in August, where Romney mocked Obama's promise in 2008 to help slow sea-level rise. The joke sparked unrest among climate advocates, who believed Romney was dismissing a critical environmental problem contributed to by humans. It also drove climate change into the election discourse for one of the first times. Obama responded in his own convention speech days later by saying, "climate change is not a hoax."
Florida gave Obama 50 percent of its vote, compared to Romney's 49 percent.
Romney and his allied outside groups relentlessly attacked Obama for contributing to higher gasoline prices, delaying permits for oil production on federal lands, and interrupting natural gas drilling. Americans for Prosperity, a group with links to the fossil fuel industry, held events at gas stations in the closing weeks of the race. It lined up hundreds of motorists and paid the difference between the cost of a gallon of fuel when Obama entered office -- $1.84 -- and the price now, an average of $3.46 yesterday.
But it is unclear how effective those messages were. Throughout the campaign, Obama touted the strengthened fuel economy standards his administration put in place, a message that Democrats say undercuts the claim that Obama is responsible for higher gas prices.
Prospects for a carbon tax
The president got a boost this week when the Energy Information Administration projected that U.S. oil imports will fall below 40 percent next year for the first time since 1991. The agency also showed that domestic oil production is rising under Obama, from 5.65 million barrels a day in 2011 to 6.33 million barrels a day in 2012, though most of that increase is on private land.
Obama promoted the idea of "clean coal" in the race as part of his "all of the above" energy strategy. But it is unclear if that will be a priority in his second term, given the ongoing transition from coal to natural gas. The technology to shuttle carbon dioxide deep underground after removing it from coal-fired power plants is still too expensive for commercial use, and it might stay that way without a carbon price to make it more competitive.
The only avenue open to pricing emissions might be through a carbon tax. The idea has increasingly attracted supporters in the world of think tanks and among economists. Opponents are also gearing up for battle, a sign that the idea could be attractive to some Republican lawmakers.
A deal would have to involve painful concessions by both parties in a broad effort to reform the tax code. It is unclear if such an effort will be undertaken, but Obama said recently that he hopes to negotiate a grand bargain to stem the deficit early in his second term.
In exchange for the added revenue of a carbon tax, Democrats would perhaps have to concede a lower capital gains tax, reduced corporate rates or lower estate taxes to Republicans, said Steven Hayward, a former energy scholar with the American Enterprise Institute.
"That would be a hard deal for Republicans to pass up," he said. "They really like those supply-side tax policies."