Romney & Obama Clash Over Clean Energy in First Debate

YouTube/Screen capture

The first presidential debate has come and gone, and the pundits have called this round for Romney — he was certainly sharper-tongued, quicker with his barbs, and generally more confident and puffed-up onstage. As for the substance; who actually pays attention to substance? After all, if you were looking for substantive ideas about governance, you would've found yourself lost in a barren morass of vague statements and dubious statistics, the occasional clearly articulated policy idea rolling by like a lonely tumbleweed.

Before I get to the climate and energy meat, I will say this; after watching the debacle live, I never would have pegged Romney as the clear and glorious victor — he definitely "won," but he wasn't that much better than Obama. I have a sneaking suspicion that the media was so craving of a "Romney comeback" story with which to inject some much-needed drama into an otherwise lugubrious race, that they seized on his edging out Obama with out-of-proportion gusto.

A prominent storyline likely to emerge from the post-debate fallout will probably be how Romney pivoted back to the center — he agreed that some parts of Obamacare were good, that Race to the Top had its merits, and he claimed that he wouldn't raise the deficit by cutting taxes for the rich (dubious, that).

But one area where he clearly did not return to the center was energy — in fact, some of Romney's most eyebrow-raising comments were about the topic. Let's start with the most egregious first.

The Clean Energy Fracas

Romney claimed that Obama had spent $90 billion on "green energy," but that half the companies that he spent that money on had failed.

“Now I like green energy as well," he said, "but that’s about fifty years of what the oil and gas industry received."

The Washington Post already put together a report that thoroughly debunks that flat-out false claim: The $90 billion he's talking about was the amount of money Obama set aside for "green" tech and research in the stimulus bill, much of which went to efficiency projects, R&D, carbon sequestration, upgrading the nation's electrical grid, and a slew of other projects. Only a little was spent directly lending money to clean energy companies — very few of which have "failed." There are precious few Solyndras in the crop of companies that have garnered DOE loans; most continue to earn the government returns on its investment.

Romney also called electric car companies "losers": "You put $90 billion, like 50 years' worth of breaks, into solar and wind, to Solyndra and Fisker and Tesla and Ener1. I mean, I had a friend who said, you don't just pick the winners and losers; you pick the losers."

Telsa, of course, is on its way to becoming a successful, profitable company; one that many hail as an exciting innovator in the auto industry.

Meanwhile, Obama said that one difference between him and Romney was that he was more interested in developing renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

Oil Subsidies

And he argued that federal subsidies for oil companies should be cut.

"Does anybody think that Exxon Mobil needs some extra money every time you go to the pump? Why wouldn't we want to eliminate that?" Obama said. Romney hit back by noting that those federal subsidies have been around for 100 years.

"It's time to end them," Obama shot back, in one of his better moments in the debate.

Romney argued that the oil industry "only" receives $2.8 billion a year in tax cuts — many analysts say it's a lot more, depending on how you quantify those tax cuts — and reaffirmed his support for preserving them.

"I like coal"

And then there was that, which Romney proudly declared in a moment quickly seized upon by climate activists:

Climate Silence/via

Yet neither candidate discussed climate change at all — it wasn't even mentioned, despite Jim Lehrer receiving 160,000 letters requesting he ask about it.

Nonetheless, judging from this debate alone, any voter concerned about climate change has a clear choice: after all, one candidate vocally opposes robust investment in clean energy and is vehement in maintaining the status quo for coal and oil. The other just isn't all that interested in publicly discussing the problem.

Romney might have etch-a-sketched his way back to the center on a handful of domestic policy issues, but energy isn't one of them — a majority of Americans still want to end oil subsidies, continue developing renewable alternatives, and investing in clean energy.

Tags: Barack Obama | Mitt Romney

Best of TreeHugger