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At Issue: Candidates amped up by energy debate, but mostly ignore climate change

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 1, 2012 - WASHINGTON -- The devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy has churned up a last-minute political debate on a topic -- global climate change -- that had been mostly ignored during more than a year of campaigning that has focused attention on energy resource issues, such as oil and coal, rather than their impact on global warming.

On Thursday, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's announcement that climate change was a key reason for his endorsement of President Barack Obama -- as well as other voices seeking more definitive answers on possible links between climate change and severe weather trends -- stirred a debate on the volatile issue just days before Tuesday's election.

While both President Barack Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney embrace what they call “all of the above” energy strategies, Romney has accused the White House of launching a regulatory “war on coal” and Obama has lambasted his opponent for “let[ting] the oil companies write” his energy policies.

Here are summaries of the presidential candidates’ position on energy and climate-change issues

Plenty of conflicts on energy 

Both Obama and Romney claim to want an “all of the above” policy on developing U.S. energy resources, but they differ energetically on what that means – and how much to emphasize the various energy sectors as well as efforts to conserve energy.

For his part, Obama’s strategy involves investments in alternative energy, as well as increased domestic production of coal, oil and natural gas.

“We’ve got to control our own energy,” Obama said during the second presidential debate. “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. ... That's why we invest in solar and wind and biofuels, energy-efficient cars.”

In the face of Romney’s critique that the White House hasn’t done enough to expand domestic oil production, administration officials point out that – just a few weeks after he approved new Gulf of Mexico offshore drilling in March 2010 -- the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig caused a massive oil spill.

While Obama implemented a six-month moratorium on offshore drilling until the accident was investigated, he lifted the restrictions in October 2010 and later opened new coastal areas to oil exploration, including off the Arctic coast of Alaska and big areas of the Gulf of Mexico.

“We have increased oil production to the highest levels in 16 years,” Obama said in the debate, noting that U.S. oil imports are now at their lowest level in 16 years. “I want to build on that,” said Obama, including “continu[ing] to open up new areas for drilling.  We continue to make 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, differing in emphasis from Romney, Obama added that “we can't just produce traditional sources of energy . . . 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.”

Obama accused Romney of having an energy plan that would “let the oil companies write the energy policies.  So he's got the oil and gas part, but he doesn't have the clean energy part.” He also accused Romney of changing position on coal-fired power plants, which Romney had questioned as governor of Massachusetts.

While Republicans have blasted Obama for failing to grant permits for the northern part of the Keystone XL pipeline – which would transport oil from Canada’s oil sands to the Gulf of Mexico -- the White House said the deadline that congressional Republicans pushed had not left time for enough environmental review.

“With respect to this [Keystone] pipeline that Gov. Romney keeps on talking about -- we've built enough pipelines to wrap around the entire Earth once,” said Obama. “So I’m all for pipelines.  I’m all for oil production.” 

The Obama administration approved billions of dollars in loans under the 2009 economic stimulus law that aimed to speed alternative-energy growth. But Romney notes that some of that help went to companies that failed, such as the $535 million loan to the solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra, which went bankrupt in September.

On the environmentally sensitive issue of "fracking," Obama's administration rejected a temporary halt of fracking operations in parts of New York and Pennsylvania in 2010. Since then, however, he has pressed for tighter safety regulations on fracking.

Romney hits Obama on oil, coal, pipelines

In his campaign, Romney has promised a strategy to achieve “energy independence by 2020” and would protect both jobs and the environment. Obama and other critics question aspects of how he plans to accomplish those goals.

The key parts of Romney’s energy plan are: empowering states to control onshore energy development; opening offshore areas for energy development; pursuing a “North American Energy Partnership” with Mexico and Canada; ensuring accurate assessment of energy resources; restoring “transparency and fairness” to permitting and regulation; and facilitating “private-sector-led development” of new energy technologies.

“I'll get America and North America energy independent,” Romney said in the second presidential debate. “I'll do it by more drilling, more permits and licenses.  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.”

Romney added that he planned to “fight for oil, coal and natural gas.” He has shown limited support for green-energy development, harshly criticizing Obama for some stimulus investments in green technology. However, Romney as governor at times used his executive power to provide grants to some Massachusetts green-energy firms, and sped up the use of investment funds from the state’s renewable energy trust.

In the first presidential debate, Romney said the Obama administration had provided about “$90 billion in breaks to the green-energy world. Now, I like green energy as well, but that's about 50 years' worth of what oil and gas receives.” He contended that the $2.8 billion in federal tax breaks to big oil firms – which Obama wants to stop -- “goes largely to small companies, to drilling operators and so forth.” 

In his energy plan, Romney calls for a streamlined regulatory process that would include fixed timelines for approval of new rules and more emphasis on weighing the cost of regulations.

“Look, I want to make sure we use our oil, our coal, our gas, our nuclear, our renewables. I believe very much in our renewable capabilities; ethanol, wind, solar would be an important part of our energy mix,” Romney said. “But what we don't need is to have the president keeping us from taking advantage of oil, coal and gas.”

He said this country has “an unprecedented opportunity to make our natural resources a long-term source of competitive advantage for our nation. If we develop these resources to the fullest, we will not only guarantee ourselves an affordable and reliable supply of energy, but also enjoy benefits throughout our economy.”

Scant mention of climate change

After an at-times disaster-prone year that has included Hurricane Sandy, severe drought in the Midwest and dramatic evidence of further ice melting in the Arctic, neither the presidential debate moderators nor the two candidates even brought up climate change.

Why hasn’t climate change emerged as a factor in the 2012 campaign? For several reasons, including the candidates’ focus on the economy, the unpopularity of the “cap and trade” approach to limit carbon emissions (which died in Congress in 2010), and the fact that scientists – while clearly showing global warming trends – have not yet been able to link extreme weather events like Sandy conclusively to global climate change.

Even if Obama and Romney have not clashed on climate change, the issue has come up in some major campaigns. For example, U.S. Senate GOP nominee Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, on Monday brought the Senate’s leading climate-change denier, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., to St. Louis to call for further exploitation of oil and coal, which scientists say produce emissions that worsen climate change. They accused U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., of being anti-coal, even though she opposed the “cap and trade” bill and has criticized some environmental regulations related to coal-fired power plants.

On the other side of the issue, a leading Obama surrogate – former President Bill Clinton – brought up climate change Wednesday. At a Minnesota rally, Clinton claimed Romney had “ridiculed the president for his efforts to fight global warming” by repeating an Obama phrase about “turning back the seas.” Added Clinton, in a reference to Hurricane Sandy: “In my part of America, we would like it if someone could’ve done that yesterday.”

UPDATE And in a surprise move, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, said Thursday that he endorsed Obama's reelection, in part because of his position on climate change. "I want our president to place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics," he wrote.

Bloomberg added: "Our climate is changing. 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."  END UPDATE

While most of the campaign rhetoric has focused on “all of the above” energy production – including the fossil fuels whose consumption result in higher carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere – Obama and Romney differ on the need for policies to limit carbon emissions that can exacerbate global warming.

Calling climate change “a critical issue,” Obama told an MTV interviewer on Friday that “there is a huge contrast in this campaign between myself and Gov. Romney. I am surprised it didn’t come up in one of the debates” – although he didn’t bring it up.

“Gov. Romney says he believes in climate change. That is different than a lot of the members of his own party who just deny it completely,” Obama said Friday. “But he says he is not sure that man-made causes are the reason.” In contrast, Obama said, “I believe scientists, who say that we are putting too much carbon emissions into the atmosphere and it is heating the planet and it is going to have a severe effect.”

Obama conceded that “we are not moving as fast as we need to” on climate change. While he supported a proposed “cap and trade” legislation to reduce emissions, that effort died in Congress in 2010. However, his administration had successfully increased auto-mileage standards, financed “clean energy” projects, pushed new regulations that aim to reduce emissions from power plants and highlighted new ways – including wind and solar – to generate renewable electricity.

While commending such steps, environmental groups have expressed disappointment that Obama has not renewed his effort to find an alternative to cap-and-trade or detailed a comprehensive plan aimed squarely at tackling the climate change issues. In fact, what policy experts say are the two best ways to reducing global emissions – increasing regulations or taxing emissions – haven’t been discussed in this year’s campaign.

Meanwhile, international talks on climate change have gone virtually nowhere in recent years – mainly because of the worldwide recession after 2008. There is intense political resistance in this country to any plan that would require the U.S. to take stronger measures than those demanded of China, India and other fast-growing economies.

This year’s Democratic Party platform altered its language from 2008, acknowledging the science of climate change and calling it “one of the biggest threats of this generation.” And in his acceptance speech Obama said: “Climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They are a threat to our children’s future.”

In contrast, the 2012 Republican Party platform mentioned climate change only once, in the context of criticizing Obama’s focus on the issue. It said the president’s strategy “subordinates our national security interests to environmental, energy, and international health issues, and elevates ‘climate change’ to the level of a ‘severe threat’ equivalent to foreign aggression.”

During his acceptance speech at the GOP convention in Tampa, Romney mocked Obama’s lofty promises – made four years ago – about the need “to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet.” Instead, Romney told delegates and viewers that his mission was “to help you and your family.”

As a governor, Romney weighed the idea of joining a regional cap-and-trade system but rejected it because of concerns about costs. In general, Romney has criticized the Obama administration’s EPA proposals to tighten regulation of emissions from power plants and vehicles. He has said he would reverse some of the administration’s air quality regulations and would renegotiate the current auto fuel efficiency standard of 54.5 miles a gallon by 2025.

In general, Romney has supported research and development in “clean energy” – expressing special interest in “clean coal” technology that offers new ways – still being tested – to stop carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. He supports expanded natural gas production and increased development of nuclear energy as well as more oil drilling offshore and in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.

In the past, Romney – citing the need to keep U.S. industries in a globally competitive position – has said he would only support “cap-and-trade” talks that also apply to developing countries such as China and India, which account for the fastest increases in carbon emissions.

At an energy debate in Massachusetts, Romney’s chief domestic policy adviser, Oren Cass, said Romney's answer to the climate challenge would be to encourage technology innovation by private industries to lower emissions. The candidate does not want to tax carbon emissions or impose new regulations to suppress emissions, he said.

One reason that many Republicans give for the lack of discussion of climate change in political campaign is a lack of conclusive evidence linking specific extreme weather events or tendencies – such as Hurricane Sandy – to climate change in general.

While evidence suggests that climate change has an impact on the severity of some trends, such as extreme heat, global temperature increases and some coastal flooding, the evidence is less convincing for hurricane and cyclone activity, scientists say.

A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said experts had “low confidence” in “any observed long-term (i.e., 40 years or more) increases in tropical cyclone activity (i.e., intensity, frequency, duration)” – in part, because of the lack of good data on such storms before weather satellites were first used.

Also, MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel told Slate that Hurricane Sandy was a “hybrid storm,” a relatively rare type of storm that scientists don’t know much about.

But Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, argued that the gradual rise in sea levels played a factor in the damage: “Sea-level rise and more intense precipitation from a warmer, moister atmosphere make coastal storms more damaging,” she said in a statement Wednesday.

Another reason for the declining political discussions of climate change seems to relate to shifts in public opinion, especially after the recession hit. A recent documentary about the dramatic shift in public opinion on climate change – PBS Frontline’s “Climate of Doubt” -- has shed light on the groups and individuals who shifted the debate on the issue. (Click here for a useful time line of climate change research, criticism and public opinion.)

A Pew Research Center poll released last December found a “modest rise” in the percentage of people who say there is solid evidence of global warming (63 percent, which was higher than the 57 percent in October 2009 but far lower than the 77 percent result in 2006-07).

However, the Pew survey also found “a continuing partisan divide” in opinions about the causes of climate change. About 51 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of independents attributed global warming mainly to human activity such as carbon emissions. But only about 19 percent of Republicans agreed that there was such a link.

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