I heard strong, positive talk in the presidential campaign yesterday about the urgent need to deal with the nation’s energy crisis and climate change. But it came from Florida where President Obama was speaking, not from Kentucky, where the vice presidential debate took place.
That marks a curious trend. The debates capture voters’ attention like nothing else, and yet they are not doing enough to address one of the most important issues in this election – an issue that is getting attention in ads and on the campaign trail.
Six out of every eight campaign ads this cycle have been about energy. Oil, gas, and coal companies have spent more than $153 million by September on campaign ads to influence the election. Governor Romney has echoed the industry’s talking points on the stump, calling for more drilling, more coal-fired power, and more inaction on climate. President Obama, meanwhile, has created a firm clean energy cornerstone in his first term and has trumpeted it in his campaign. He presided over the largest increase in renewable power in our country’s history, nearly doubled fuel economy for cars by 2025, and reduced toxic pollution from power plants. He kicked of his 2012 run with an ad featuring the 2.7 million Americans who have jobs in the clean economy. And at a campaign event in Miami yesterday, he called for more wind and solar power, saying, “My plan will reduce the carbon pollution that’s heating our planet, because climate change is not a hoax…And we can do something about it.”
But for all this focus on energy in the campaign, neither the vice presidential debate nor the presidential debate before it included a question or a comprehensive conversation about energy.
Vice President Biden did make a great point last night about clean energy and jobs. When Congressman Ryan belittled the stimulus package and claimed it wouldn’t reduce unemployment, Biden said Ryan had sent several letters to Energy Secretary Chu asking for stimulus money to fund clean energy projects in Wisconsin. The letters, Biden told the crowd, said: “The reason we need this stimulus, it will create growth and jobs.”
That’s an important fact check—something these debates could use more of. But this exchange, and Obama and Romney’s back and forth about ending oil subsidies don’t capture the extent to which energy policy is up for grabs in this election or just how much is at stake.
Instead of making phony charges about loan programs or sparring over a stimulus program that is already law, the debates should focus more attention on where each candidate wants to take our country. And I hope the questioners at next week’s session get specific about it. Let’s let President Obama describe how he will continue to curb climate change and help Americans deal with the extreme weather that has been destroying homes and businesses across the country.
Let’s force Governor Romney to explain whether he actually has any program to encourage clean energy, or merely empty rhetoric. He says he likes clean energy, yet he wants to kill the production tax credit for wind and prolong fossil fuels’ unfair advantage. And I want him to say why he would repeal standards that will finally limit mercury and other toxic pollution from coal-fired power plants.
Both presidential candidates are talking about these issues on the trail. It’s time to focus on them in the debates, because voters have very clear opinions about energy. On every major energy issue that the two presidential candidates differ on—reducing toxic air pollution, cutting carbon emissions, expanding renewable energy, setting standards for fracking operations—voters clearly say they’d prefer a candidate who is moving America into a safer, more sustainable future, according to a new poll conducted for NRDC Action Fund by Public Policy Polling.
The debates should shine more of a spotlight on this pivotal issue. Voters need to know that Romney is the defender of a dirty energy agenda shaped by an industry spending $400 million to influence the campaign conversation. I look forward to the town hall format of the next debate. Hopefully an ordinary American will ask the candidates whether they stand for polluters or for regular people.