DEBATE WATCH: The No. 1 Energy Question for President Obama

“The No. 1 question that has to be put to the president is: Why, under his watch, has the use of taxpayer-owned lands fallen into such complete abandonment?”– AEA’s Benjamin Cole

Energy policy ready for its close-up at White House debate
Jennifer Yachnin, E&E reporter
Published: Monday, October 1, 2012

DENVER — The first presidential debate of the 2012 cycle is going to be all about the economy — but environmentalists, energy industry advocates and political observers agree that’s likely to mean energy policy gets a big airing.

President Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney will face off here Wednesday for the first of three debates.

A schedule released by the Commission on Presidential Debates said the first 45 minutes of the session will focus on “the economy,” followed by 15-minute segments on “health care,” “the role of government” and “governing.”

ConservAmerica Policy Director Jim DiPeso suggested that while energy policy is not specifically designated among the topics moderator and “PBS NewsHour” Executive Editor Jim Lehrer is supposed to ask about, it’s a subject one or both candidates are likely to raise.

“I would be surprised if it didn’t come up. Energy has become, in addition to being a national security and an environmental issue, it’s become very much an economic issue,” DiPeso said. “I expect we’ll be hearing a lot about what types of energy resources we’ll be developing, what technologies we ought to be pursuing, what the government should be pursuing and shouldn’t be pursuing.”

Exactly how those topics arise could vary — environmental groups are lobbying Lehrer to ask a specific question on climate change, for example — but University of Denver Department of Political Science Chairman Seth Masket suggested it would be strange to omit any discussion of energy policy, considering that the debate is taking place in Colorado, where both traditional fuels and renewable energy are vital industries (Greenwire, Sept. 27).

And such a backdrop will likely present challenges to both candidates, added Masket, whose campus will host the debate.

“I would imagine a point of criticism by Romney, that a number of Republicans have levied against Obama, is that he does not favor some of the more traditional sources of energy … and this is part of the reason why the economy has struggled somewhat,” Masket said, and later added: “There is some sense that, particularly, wind energy might be a sore spot for Romney. There are some Republicans who are involved in that industry here in Colorado, and they support continued investment.”

Advocates for the oil and gas industry, including American Energy Alliance spokesman Benjamin Cole, predicted Romney will trumpet GOP criticism of the Obama administration’s energy policies, including complaints about the length of time needed to secure permits to drill on federal land and the White House’s rejection of the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline project earlier this year.

. . .

“Speaking for the AEA, I really think that the No. 1 question that has to be put to the president is: Why, under his watch, has the use of taxpayer-owned lands fallen into such complete abandonment? Why is it that he has fast-tracked renewables that have proven to be intermittent and unreliable? Why has he slowed down permitting processes for energy we know we need?” Cole said. 

In a separate interview, Western Energy Alliance Vice President for Government Affairs Kathleen Sgamma said that, if allowed her own debate query, she would like to see Obama address claims that government-backed research and assistance into hydraulic fracturing helped propel the current natural gas boom.

“I would love to see the president challenged on this rhetoric versus reality, claiming credit for something that private companies are doing,” Sgamma said in a recent interview at the WEA’s Denver headquarters. “We’ve seen people fall out of their chairs trying to show how, ‘Oh, but [the Department of Energy] seeded all of this fracking money.’ … They spent $137 million over 20 years. That’s a laughable amount of money.”

Cole said, if given the chance, he would like to quiz Romney on aspects of his energy policy, as well. While the Republican candidate’s energy plan — including a proposal to transfer regulation of energy production on federal lands to the states — largely garnered praise from the oil and gas industry, Cole said he would like to see Romney asked about his support for the renewable fuel standard.

“I’d like to hear Governor Romney say why he thinks corn is fuel and not food,” Cole said.

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