Amid the series of inaccurate, confusing things that were said at last week’s presidential debate, energy policy set a new standard for wrong-headed rhetoric, wasting a great opportunity to engage 67 million Americans in a serious conversation about the country’s energy future.
President Obama got the energy discussion off to a reasonable start when he contrasted Romney’s obsession with fossil fuels with his own “all of the above” energy strategy, including a brief mention of solar and wind power.
But things went downhill from there when, out of the blue, Romney interjected, “By the way, I like clean coal” (the most rapidly declining and dirtiest U.S. energy source) and went on to compare the $2.8 billion in annual tax breaks for the 100-year-old oil industry with the supposed $90 billion that the Obama administration spent on renewable energy. (The latter figure reflects, of course, the multi-year stimulus bill approved by Congress in 2009—including vital loan guarantees for renewable energy, but also large sums for Romney’s favorite energy source, coal.)
Governor Romney next turned to the failed Solyndra solar loan, telling President Obama that rather than picking winners and losers, the President seemed only to have picked losers. That, of course, is ridiculous. Solyndra was a tiny portion of the administration’s energy loan portfolio, which has successfully financed thousands of megawatts of wind and solar power plants while providing seed capital for scores of promising start-up companies.
Those achievements seem not to have registered with President Obama, who didn’t respond to Romney’s inaccurate claims and forgot to mention the extraordinary progress in energy that the country has made on his watch. During Obama’s first term, automobile fuel economy standards have been increased 55 percent, U.S. oil imports have declined 32 percent, carbon dioxide emissions have fallen 10 percent, wind power has more than doubled, and solar energy has jumped sevenfold—energy achievements that dwarf those of any U.S. president since Nixon presided over the nation’s first energy crisis in 1973. (See graphs.)
To be sure, President Obama’s policies aren’t solely responsible for these historic changes in U.S. energy trends. But politically astute presidents take credit for the good things that happen while they’re in office—particularly since their opponents will inevitably blame them for the bad ones.
Based on his recent speeches, President Obama seems to be prouder of his administration’s offshore oil leases than the fact that, in just four years, he has laid the foundation for a 21st-century energy economy that could spur decades of economic growth, job creation, and clean air. Indeed, the President’s political advisors seem to be running from his energy achievements rather than embracing them. (His speech writers must have worked overtime to come up with an energy slogan as uninspiring as “all of the above.”)
If President Obama is able to overcome the damage done by his lackluster debate performance, he may have the chance to solidify the energy transformation he started in his first term: replacing America’s dependence on the dirtiest fossil fuels and building an efficient economy powered by clean, renewable resources. The President’s first step should be to acknowledge the energy successes he’s already achieved—and to present a compelling vision that matches his policy record.
Chris Flavin is the President Emeritus of Worldwatch Institute.