When energy policy took the floor on Tuesday night's presidential debate, the sparks began to fly. President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney sparred over oil production on public lands and the factors behind the rise in gasoline during the president's first term.
But somewhere between the one-liners and the verbal counterpunches, the facts and the context behind them got bruised (as they often do in presidential debates). On energy, at least, they seemed more abused by the challenger than the incumbent.
Start with Mr. Romney's charge about oil and gas production on federal land.
Romney: "As a matter of fact, oil production is down 14 percent this year on federal land, and gas production was down 9 percent. Why? Because the president cut in half the number of licenses and permits for drilling on federal lands and in federal waters."
Obama: "Very little of what Governor Romney just said is true. We've opened up public lands. We're actually drilling more on public lands than in the previous administration and my — the previous president was an oilman."
The facts Romney quotes are correct, as far as they go. Oil sales on federal lands did fall 14 percent between 2010 and 2011. But the main driver wasn't the administration's leasing policy. It was Mr. Obama's temporary moratorium on offshore drilling after the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The president is closer to the truth when he says there's more oil drilling on public lands during his administration. Oil production on those lands is up 13 percent since he took office and is now climbing back to pre-spill levels.
Romney is also correct on the decline in natural gas production and wrong on the context. Gas production has been falling for years because new technology has made it cheaper to drill on private land in Pennsylvania, North Dakota, and elsewhere.
The candidates also argued about gasoline prices.
Romney: "The proof of whether a strategy is working or not is what the price is that you're paying at the pump. If you're paying less than you paid a year or two ago, why, then, the strategy is working. But you're paying more. When the president took office, the price of gasoline here in Nassau County was about $1.86 a gallon. Now, it's $4 a gallon. The price of electricity is up. If the president's energy policies are working, you're going to see the cost of energy come down."
Obama: "Think about what the governor just said. He said when I took office, the price of gasoline was $1.80, $1.86. Why is that? Because the economy was on the verge of collapse, because we were about to go through the worst recession since the Great Depression, as a consequence of some of the same policies that Governor Romney’s now promoting."
Romney is right about the gasoline prices, but Obama is right about the larger context. Oil markets, not presidents, set the price of oil. When Obama took office at the peak of the financial crisis, the global economy was shrinking and oil prices plummeted. As the global economy has recovered, so have oil prices.
Also, electricity prices have not climbed during the administration's first term, as Romney claims. If anything, they're down slightly, if you adjust for inflation.
During the debate, both candidates stressed the importance of making North America energy dependent. That is important in military and strategic terms and, as they correctly pointed out, in helping to create more American jobs. But as several oil analysts have said, unless the United States somehow disconnects from global oil markets, North American energy independence will not set the price at the pump, global oil markets will.
Another contentious point in the debate was the federal bailout of General Motors and Chrysler. That's not energy policy, exactly, but it was the closest the candidates came to debating Obama's direct investment of taxpayer money in companies, especially clean-energy companies. That part of the stimulus program has come under increasing fire as a handful of those companies fail.
Obana: "Number one, I want to build manufacturing jobs in this country again. Now when Governor Romney said we should let Detroit go bankrupt. I said we’re going to bet on American workers and the American auto industry and it’s come surging back. I want to do that in industries, not just in Detroit, but all across the country and that means we change our tax code so we’re giving incentives to companies that are investing here in the United States and creating jobs here."
Romney: "I know he keeps saying, 'You want to take Detroit bankrupt.' Well, the president took Detroit bankrupt. You took General Motors bankrupt. You took Chrysler bankrupt. So when you say that I wanted to take the auto industry bankrupt, you actually did. And I think it's important to know that that was a process that was necessary to get those companies back on their feet, so they could start hiring more people. That was precisely what I recommended and ultimately what happened."
Romney did not write the line that the president pins on him. "Let Detroit go bankrupt" was the headline given to a New York Times editorial he wrote in late 2008. Nevertheless, in that editorial, he stated his opposition to a government bailout and called instead for a managed bailout using private investment money, with the federal government providing loan guarantees only for post-bankruptcy financing. Many analysts doubt that strategy could have worked at the height of the financial crisis, when the stock market was plummeting and banks were leery of making loans even to good credit risks. Instead, both automakers probably would have had to shut down.
Obama's far more controversial moves to use stimulus money to fund small, unproven clean-tech companies, which surfaced in the first debate, never came up in Tuesday night's back and forth, even though battery maker A123, which received $250 million in federal grants, and announced bankruptcy on the day of the debate.