Romney, Obama reps square off over energy plans in debate

Which presidential candidate has the right energy plan for the future? Surrogates for President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney presented two vastly different visions for America's energy future in a debate at MIT last Friday.

David J. Unger
Representatives from the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama argue on behalf of their candidates in a debate before an audience in MIT's Kresge Auditorium last week. Democrats and Republicans alike hope for an energy independent future, but they remain far apart on how to get there.

Democrats and Republicans alike hope for an energy independent future—an America freed from the whims of a temperamental global energy market. The differences arise when determining what to do today to make that future a reality.

Last Friday, representatives from the two presidential campaigns met to debate energy policy on the campus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sponsored by the MIT Energy Initiative and the MIT Energy Club. Oren Cass, domestic policy director for Romney for President, squared off with Joseph Aldy, professor of public policy at Harvard University and a former energy and environment advisor to President Obama. The two argued a wide range of topics, including energy subsidies, climate change, and the role the government and private citizens should have in shaping the country's energy goals. 

Energy independence two ways

For Mr. Cass, speaking on behalf of Romney, the path to energy independence lies in cultivating private sector innovation via funding for early-stage research coupled with an easing of regulations.

Mr. Cass criticized Obama’s increase in clean energy subsidies, portraying Obama as “play[ing] venture capitalist from within the White House” and casting clean energy subsidies as failures that overextend the reach of federal government.

“What Governor Romney does not support,” Mr. Cass said, “and which frankly has never been a part of American energy policy prior to this administration, is the extraordinary waste of billions of dollars that has gone into investing in specific companies that private sector that investors do not want to invest in, on the premise that somehow a bureaucrat in the Department of Energy has a better idea of what will and will not succeed in the market than an investor in the private sector could.”

The gains made in America’s energy output in recent years came not in clean energy, but in oil and gas production, Cass remarked. Private companies have led the way in opening up new sources of natural gas—which both sides agree has been a game-changer for working towards energy independence. 

The advances came despite the Obama administration’s stifling of the fossil fuels industry, according to Cass.

On the other side, Mr. Aldy, speaking on behalf of President Obama, defended clean energy subsidies as a job-creating means to a cleaner, more independent energy future. 

“You look at life sciences, you look at agriculture, you look at computers: There is a significant role play by the government in working with industry to help develop technologies and to commercialize them,” Aldy said.

The former advisor made pains to underscore Obama’s “all-of-the-above” approach to energy—combating the image of Obama as focused solely on alternative energy at the expense of traditional energy.

The balanced approach of development of all resources and innovation in all sectors has had phenomenal results, Aldy said. The US is the largest producer of natural gas, Mr. Aldy said. There are more than 600,000 jobs in the biofuels, winds and solar industries, Mr. Aldy said, and coal mining jobs are at a 15-year high.

In Mr. Aldy’s view, if any industry receives too many federal subsidies, it’s oil, which Mr. Aldy said has been subsidized by the federal government for nearly a century.

“This idea that we should treat [different sources of energy] the same,—even though one technology is clean, it doesn’t impose these health costs, the other one is not—the idea that we should treat them the same doesn’t seem reasonable,” Mr. Aldy said.

Climate change: the great divide?

Perhaps the starkest difference came when moderator Jason Pontin, Editor of Technology Review, broached the subject of climate change.

While both representatives agreed on the issue’s importance—Cass affirmed Romney’s view that climate change is real and that humans contribute to it—the two differed on two points:  

1) How big of a threat it is  

2) What government should do about it

Should the reduction of CO2 emissions through clean coal be a goal of the federal government? Mr. Cass gave an unflinching “no,” eliciting a chuckling murmur from the hundreds in attendance.

Mr. Romney supports continued scientific inquiry into climate change, Mr. Cass said, but the candidate would reform the Clean Air Act to eliminate pollutant standards that Mr. Cass said are too low.

[Editor's note: This piece was updated to reflect the following changes: Mr. Cass said the reduction of CO2 emissions through clean coal should not be an aim of the federal government, not that the reduction of gas should never be a goal. Mr. Cass did state that pollutant standards in the Clean Air Act are too low, but he did not tie those standards to an impact on domestic energy production.]

In contrast, Mr. Aldy echoed President Obama’s belief that “climate change is not a hoax,” calling it a complex global problem that requires bipartisan support domestically and the leadership of the US abroad.

“Continued scientific inquiry isn’t going to cut it,” Mr. Aldy said. “It’s not sufficient.”

The obstacle, as Mr. Aldy sees it, is a Republican-run Congress that blocks the president’s attempt to lower the country’s carbon emissions through programs like the unrealized carbon cap-and-trade regulatory system.  

Looking ahead

“Energy,” ultimately, is a proxy for “future.” How will we power the world we live in tomorrow?

 In a moment of rare common ground, both emphasized the importance of energy policy in shaping the future by mentioning their infant children:

“Certainly I think it’s important to preserve our natural spaces,” said Cass, in response to a question about drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), “but I have a daughter who just turned one month old and I’m guessing she will never travel to ANWR, and that if there are some oil rigs there, that will not be disappointing to her—particularly if it’s brought us closer to energy independence.”

In Mr. Aldy's closing remarks, the former energy and environment advisor to President Obama ruminated on his child’s future:

“I think about my five-month-old at home and I think about the kind of world that I hope he inherits,” Aldy said before turning to Cass and adding, “a world shared with your daughter, because we’re both dealing with little ones.”

Perhaps the two comments were no more than political appeals to emotion, but they were among the few agreements during a debate of two vastly different energy plans for the country.

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