Presidential debate 101: In oil drilling spat, did Obama make his best case?
A tense exchange between Romney and Obama on oil drilling was perhaps the most contentious of the second presidential debate. Here's a look at what was said, and whether it was accurate.
The exchange on energy policy on Tuesday night’s debate was possibly the most contentious area of disagreement.Skip to next paragraph
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Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney tried to get President Obama in a headlock over the number of drilling permits issued to try to find new oil. Mr. Romney kept circling Mr. Obama while he asked six times, “How much did you cut them (drilling permits) by, then?”
Obama blamed the oil industry for sitting on oil leases for decades and said the permits were taken away since they were not being used. But, regardless of the permits, Obama said, oil production is up.
Romney said, oh no, production on federal lands is down.
It would be surprising if anyone watching the debate were not confused.
Who is right? It turns out that there is truth in both statements.
First, there is no doubt that drilling permits fell. According to the Department of the Interior, permits dropped 36 percent in 2011 from the prior year. Romney claimed Obama had cut licenses and permits in half.
But what Obama did not say was that the reason permits dropped was the giant BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April of 2010. After the spill, the Department of the Interior issued a moratorium on new permits until it could review safety procedures and draft tighter anti-pollution regulations. In October 2010 it lifted the moratorium after drafting tougher rules.
“When you have a spill that big you look around and ask, ‘Are we doing everything carefully,’ ” says Sarah Emerson, managing principal at Energy Security Analysis Inc. in Wakefield, Mass. “It was careful governance, but it would have an impact on production in the subsequent year.”
Instead, Obama said the industry was sitting on leases for decades. “So if you want to drill on public lands, you use it or you lose it,” he told Romney.
The government did take away some leases, agrees Amy Myers Jaffe, an energy expert affiliated with the University of California, Davis Graduate School of Management.
But she says Obama’s implication that the energy companies are lazy may be too negative.
“Sometimes it’s more complicated,” she says. For example, she says oil companies have to decide what their priorities are in terms of drilling. Sometimes, the best prospects may be in West Africa or Latin America. “You have to show management you are better off drilling here than somewhere else,” she says.