Obama and Romney Differ on Energy Policy, But Less Than You Might Think

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's endorsement of President Obama for his stance on climate change has brought the candidate's energy policy back into focus. So let's start off with a quiz. Which candidate has advocated renewable energy to stimulate job growth, boasted that he created tens of thousands of new green jobs, and personally handed government checks for millions of dollars to two green startups which later filed for bankruptcy?

Second question: Which candidate supports expanding oil and gas drilling off the coast of the U.S., approves of "fracking," a controversial technique for exploiting natural gas reserves, and wants to allow coal mining on a huge swath of public lands in the state of Wyoming?

The answer to the first question is Mitt Romney. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney backed state loans to the solar companies Konarka Technologies and Evergreen Solar, both of which went belly up after being helped by the state. This, however, has not prevented the Republican nominee from bashing the Obama administration for backing Solyndra, a solar company which likewise filed for bankruptcy after receiving a loan as part of the federal stimulus package.

The answer to the second question is president Obama. While granting tax credits and loans to green companies, the president has also expanded oil and natural gas drilling in a bid to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil. Obama has implemented a policy of "all-of-the-above," a phrase coined by George W. Bush and later used by John McCain during his 2008 campaign signifying support for both fossil fuels and alternative energy technologies.

In the last debate, Romney claimed that energy production on federal lands had declined 14 percent this year. He failed to mention that the decline was due to the reevaluation which occurred after the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf in 2010. Overall fossil fuel extraction has been increasing on public lands during the Obama administration, which issued 400 new leases for oil and gas exploration even after the rules were tightened in the wake of the Gulf oil spill.

But most of the rise in fuel production comes from a boom in fracking in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas and elsewhere in the U.S. Environmentalists have called for disclosure of the chemical composition of fracking fluids used on public lands. And they want to see more stringent regulation of potential groundwater pollution and leakage of methane, a greenhouse gas, during the drilling process. The Obama administration, however, has shown little appetite for regulating this lucrative new industry.

Some have also criticized the president's decision to expand coal mining in Wyoming, for example, was condemned by environmental journalist Bill McKibben as being "the carbon equivalent of opening 300 coal-fired power plants."

And if Obama finalizes his approval of the Keystone XL pipeline (the president has already signed off on the southern portion of the pipeline and says that he will decide on the environmentally sensitive northern route after the election) it will be full steam ahead for the exploitation of the Alberta tar sands. James Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, calls that "game over" for the climate. By exploiting "the dirtiest of fuels" like tar sands, Hansen predicts, "there is no hope of keeping carbon concentrations below 500 p.p.m. -- a level that would, as earth's history shows, leave our children a climate system that is out of their control."

While the president is still making up his mind on Keystone, Mitt Romney says that he will give it the green light on his first day in office ("I will build that pipeline if I have to myself," Romney boasted last month) and he vows to open the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to drilling, if elected, a step that the Obama administration has so far resisted.

Romney advocates letting a tax break for wind energy producers expire at the end of the year. This led the president to quip in Iowa:

During a speech a few months ago Governor Romney even explained his new energy policy this way, I'm quoting here: 'You can't drive a car with a windmill on it.'... I don't know if he's actually tried that. I know he's had other things on his car.

Iowa was one of the states that benefited the most from the administration's support for wind power. The American Wind Energy Association estimates that 37,000 jobs will be lost in Iowa and elsewhere if the tax credit isn't extended this year. Yet flying in the face of his own position against continuing wind power subsidies, Mitt Romney asserted during the debate, "I don't have a policy of stopping wind jobs in Iowa and that -- they're not phantom jobs. They're real jobs."

In June, Romney blasted Obama's EPA for tightening mercury emissions standards for power plants, which he alleged was part of the administrations "war on coal." Never mind that when he was governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney joined other Northeast states in demanding tougher mercury regulations from Washington. A YouTube video that has been making the rounds shows Romney in 2003 pointing to a PG&E power plant saying, "that plant kills people" and "I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people."

Romney's newfound enthusiasm for coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, and one which currently produces57 percent of the nation's electricity, may have something to do with his desire to keep coal states like Kentucky and West Virginia firmly in his camp, and to woo voters in the crucial coal-producing swing state of Ohio.

Coal use has been declining largely in response to the glut of cheap natural gas on the market. With many power plants now switching to the cleaner-burning gas, America's CO2 emissions have actually declined dramatically to their lowest level in 20 years, according to a report by the Energy Department. This hopeful development is tempered by the fact that much of America's coal now goes to China, whose use of coal for electricity production continues to rise sharply.

Another issue on which the presidential candidates differ is on the estimated $52 billion a year in federal subsidies for America's oil companies. The president wants to end them, whereas Romney supports granting these corporate tax breaks in perpetuity.

The Republican candidate's fondness for the oil companies may derive in part from their generosity in funding his campaign. Rolling Stone reported that by the end of August, the oil and gas industry had already given more than $36 million to candidates and their PACs -- nearly 90 percent of it to Republicans.In just one fundraising luncheon in Texas, sponsored by ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, oil company executives pledged $7 million to the Romney campaign. This turns out to be mere chump change compared to the $400 million that the billionaire oil magnates David and Charles Koch have contributed to the Republican candidate.

While Romney is clearly the first choice of America's fossil fuel industry, Big Oil and Gas have thrived under Obama too, even if he has not given them a totally free reign.

The bottom line is that neither candidate is proposing policies which will seriously challenge the continued dominance of fossil fuels in the years ahead. This may arguably be "good news" for the American economy in the short run. But the impact on our atmosphere and climate is another story.