Candidates’ Energy Policy: Differences Explained

The main take-away from the debate is that both candidates see the rapidly increasing domestic crude oil and natural gas production as the key to American energy independence. When Romney cited areas where in his view Obama was not doing enough to produce more domestic energy (oil, gas, coal), Obama was largely able to refute his arguments, leaving only nuanced differences and averring that during the last 6-8 years the U.S. has reversed the decline in domestic crude production and has started to tap the huge quantities of shale gas (and oil) that are dramatically reducing our oil imports.

I agree with Romney regarding the need to build the Keystone pipeline (see my March 5th 2012 post) in order to substitute Canadian oil for imported oil from the Middle East, Russia and Venezuela. It’s true that the production of the very heavy Canadian oil from the Athabaca tar sands involves a process that emits large quantities of Greenhouse gases, but technology is being developed to mitigate this.

Romney faulted Obama on high gasoline prices and reduction in offshore drilling. Both of these accusations are not valid. Gasoline prices are set by the market. The low prices in 2009 were largely due to the worldwide recession causing a sharp drop in demand. Recovery and continued increasing demand from the developing world have brought gasoline prices back into the range experienced during the Bush years. As to offshore drilling, this was cut back substantially after the BP oil spill to allow reviewing safety procedures and is now going back to a fairly normal level. Also, Obama has now agreed to drilling in the Arctic offshore Alaska (long postponed under Bush and Clinton) with Shell taking the lead.

It is difficult to get all the facts on drilling activity and oil production on Federal lands. Obama claims that a number of leases were cancelled because of lack of activity by the oil companies who paid for the leases. There have been cases where no drilling is allowed because of wildlife or environmental issues. The government (and the states involved) collect substantial royalties from drilling on Federal lands and, given the administration’s commitment to raising domestic oil production and its need for revenues it does not stand to reason that it would arbitrarily decline to open up land with promising oil or gas reserves except for environmental considerations. A Congressional Budget Office study indicates that unleased Federal lands don’t appear to have a great deal of potential oil relative to areas already opened up.

Romney’s claim that the EPA is active in causing a number of utilities to shut down highly polluting coal-burning power plants is largely true, though the large power plants are or have already installed equipment to trap the mercury and other gases and particulars that are being targeted here and will not be sut down (This has nothing to do with carbon dioxide/Greenhouse gas emissions). The smaller, polluting plants will largely be shut down, though some can or will be remediated with scrubbing and electrostatic equipment. This would provide local construction jobs, the negative effect being an increase in the cost of  electricity.

The availability of inexpensive natural gas has made wind and solar power a much less attractive source of energy than was considered to be the case when a substantial amount of stimulus money was directed toward “green” investments in alternative energy. Differences in the candidates’ view on the climate change controversy were not spelled out in the debate.

This appears to leave the Keystone pipeline as the major difference in their energy policies. Obama did not veto this project, just postponed a decision to placate his “base”. If he is reelected, he may well decide to go ahead with the pipeline.

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