There could hardly be a more pressing issue than energy policy at a time of global warming, but it has rarely featured in this year’s presidential campaign. Until last Friday night at MIT, that is, when representatives of the Obama and Romney campaigns squared off in a crisp, serious-minded debate about energy, revealing significant differences between the candidates.
At the event, hosted by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), Oren Cass, policy director for Republican candidate Mitt Romney, summarized the challenger’s positions by noting that the former Massachusetts governor believes increased domestic fossil-fuel production should be a principal focus of energy policy.
There has been a recent “energy revolution” in the techniques used to extract fossil fuels, Cass asserted, making “energy independence on this continent … a potential reality for the first time in decades.” The pressing issue, he said, is whether “we embrace the revolution that actually has occurred … or do we attempt to stifle it?”
The Obama administration, Cass charged, has invested too heavily in promoting alternative energy, and has been insufficiently aggressive in backing fossil fuels: not opening up enough public lands and offshore waters for oil and gas drilling, and not yet approving the Keystone XL pipeline, which is intended to deliver oil to the United States from Canada. “The administration’s policies are misaligned with the goal of increased production,” Cass said.
- Video: Watch the debate
Representing President Barack Obama, Joe Aldy, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government who served as a special assistant to Obama for energy and environment in 2009 and 2010, made the case that an “all-of-the-above strategy” is needed to address America’s energy needs — increasing production, technological innovation and efficiency.
“When I think about what the American public wants, it’s to look for the kind of balanced approach the president is pursuing,” Aldy said, adding: “We’re going to use every tool we have available. Let’s not just focus on fossil fuels. We can do a lot in renewables, whether it’s for biofuels, wind or solar. We need to be creative in how we do this. We need to take advantage of opportunities [for] energy efficiency.” While domestic oil production is at a 14-year high, Aldy said, Obama has also signed new fuel-efficiency standards for the nation’s automotive fleet that will mandate an average of 54.5 mpg by the year 2025.
Cass and Aldy also presented differing views on the government’s proper role in fostering energy innovation. Cass said that Romney supports ARPA-E, the federal government’s program to develop new clean-energy technologies, which was first funded with $400 million from the economic stimulus act that Obama signed in early 2009. However, Cass noted a few times, Romney would prefer to see the lion’s share of government backing for innovation go toward early stage basic research
“Ultimately the biggest source of difference [between the campaigns] … is the question of what is the right way to promote innovation,” Cass said, adding that Romney believes in “government support in the very early stages of research, and reliance on the private sector to commercialize technologies to bring down their costs and to hopefully succeed in the market.” By contrast, Cass asserted, Obama has supported “massive subsidies for chosen industries ... which, in our judgment, has not been a success.”
Aldy countered that the Obama administration has helped advance clean energy innovation through its ARPA-E grants, and created 250,000 jobs from the total of $90 billion spent on clean energy in the stimulus bill. “We need to continue to diversify … and continue to advance wind and solar,” he said, asserting that there is “a lot of job creation going on, it’s high-quality jobs in the manufacturing sector.”
Let moderation be your guide
The 90-minute debate, in front of a crowd of several hundred in MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, was moderated by Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief and publisher of Technology Review. The campaign representatives hewed closely to their time allowances throughout the debate, and Pontin permitted them a few unscheduled but concise rebuttals to address areas of particular disagreement. Four other journalists and three students from area universities offered questions as well at the forum, formally called the MITEI Presidential Energy Debate.
In addition to debating energy production and innovation, the discussion also turned to the environmental effects of industrial production. One of the sharpest areas of disagreement pertained to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, issued in 2011, which regulate emissions from coal-fired powerplants.
“The mercury standard makes incredible sense in terms of health,” Aldy said, mentioning the EPA’s estimate that the law will prevent 11,000 premature deaths per year.
Cass underscored Romney’s opposition to it, arguing that the benefits did not equal the costs of the measure, including the “unemployment of a significant number of workers” at coal plants that could be shuttered on account of the measure. All told, the measure constitutes “one of the most outrageously unjustified regulations the country has ever seen,” Cass said.
In his reply, Aldy described that characterization of the regulation as “shocking.”
Cass also repeatedly criticized Obama for not being more direct about his position on so-called cap-and-trade legislation, among other matters. In response, Aldy noted that Obama “could not find any Republicans willing to work on a bill in the Senate in 2010” involving cap-and-trade, after the House of Representatives passed legislation for it in mid-2009.
The two representatives did find common ground on a statement Aldy made early on in Friday evening’s proceedings: “There is a clear choice in this election.”