After months of retrograde discussion of energy policy on the campaign trail, the United States woke up on Wednesday to a surprisingly happy conclusion: U.S. voters have rejected candidate Romney’s fossil fuels-only approach to energy policy and embraced the new course set by President Obama in his first term.
It was the fossil fuel industry itself, fueled by millions of dollars from the coal and oil industries, that decided more than a year ago to turn the 2012 election into a crusade—and a referendum. Bolstered by an unprecedented war-chest and exaggerated attention to a few failed solar loans by the Obama administration, the energy establishment made its election preference abundantly clear, giving American voters a clear choice. It was an all-in bet by the “drill-baby-drill” crowd—and one they decisively lost.
Throughout the campaign, the fossil fuel companies’ arguments were undermined by the fact that, apart from the failed cap-and-trade legislation, President Obama has a solid energy record. During his first term, the fuel economy standards for automobiles were nearly doubled, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions fell 10 percent, oil imports declined 32 percent, wind power more than doubled, and solar energy jumped sevenfold—energy achievements that arguably exceed those of any U.S. president in modern times.
Public opinion polls show that a solid majority of Americans support President Obama’s policies to spur the development of new energy industries and reduce dependence on oil and coal. The coal industry’s efforts to exaggerate the number of jobs in coal mining (representing just 2 out of every 1,000 jobs in the pivotal state of Ohio) fell flat as the public began to realize that U.S. jobs in the wind, solar, and battery industries already exceed coal mining (an industry that has voluntarily eliminated three-quarters of its jobs via automation over the past two decades).
President Obama’s challenge in his second term is to strengthen federal support for renewable energy while closely guarding taxpayers’ money. To be effective, he will also have to come up with an energy strategy more inspiring than the “All of the Above” slogan his political advisers came up with in his first term. The new focus should be “Energy Transformation”—building a high-tech energy system that strengthens the economy, lowers oil imports, and reduces the pollutants that threaten human health and the environment.
The election results may also give President Obama the courage to take on Republicans’ decision to wage a war against the science of climate change. Public opinion was already against this Neolithic position, but when Superstorm Sandy pounded the Northeast just a week before the election, the message from the natural world was unambiguous: replacing fossil fuels with clean energy is not just an economic opportunity, but a human necessity.
Chris Flavin is President Emeritus of Worldwatch Institute.