Well, that was a lively bit of political theater. Far from the somnolent affair that left viewers bored two weeks ago, we got raised voices, interruptions aplenty, a mocking jab or two, and the birth of yet another new meme. (Still, the most interesting action was apparently taking place outside the debate hall.) The insta-polls are calling this one for Obama, though by far slimmer margins than the previous title was handed to Romney.
And the most heated bouts of sparring were over energy policy; the candidates nit-picked Obama's record of drilling for oil on public lands, argued over wind power jobs, and declared their love for coal, coal, coal. As for climate change, surprise — it wasn't mentioned a single time. That's three debates and nary a mention of climate change. Which isn't just crazy because this year is breaking all kinds of heat and extreme weather records — it's also crazy because they spent so much time talking about energy and managed to avoid the topic altogether.
As MNBC host Chris Hayes noted in his post-game analysis, "Discussing energy without talking climate is like talking about tobacco without talking about cancer."
But so it was; both candidates repeatedly stumbled over each other to assure voters that they loved all brands of cigarettes. Here's Romney in his opening gambit on energy:
As a matter of fact, oil production is down 14 percent this year on federal land, and gas production is down 9 percent. Why? Because the president cut in half the number of licenses and permits for drilling on federal lands and in federal waters ... The administration brought a criminal action against the people drilling up there for oil, this massive new resource we have. And what was the cost? Twenty or 25 birds were killed, and they brought out a migratory bird act to go after them on a criminal basis.Catch that up there, Romney poking fun at a major oil spill? Just saying. And here's Obama's rejoinder:
Look, I want to make sure we use our oil, our coal, our gas, our nuclear, our renewables. I believe very much in our renewable capabilities -- ethanol, wind, solar will be an important part of our energy mix. But what we don’t need is to have the president keeping us from taking advantage of oil, coal and gas. This has not been Mr. Oil or Mr. Gas or Mr. Coal. Talk to the people that are working in those industries. I was in coal country. People grabbed my arms and say, please, save my job. The head of the EPA said, you can’t build a coal plant. You’ll virtually -- it’s virtually impossible, given our regulations.
I’ll get America and North America energy-independent. I’ll do it by more drilling, more permits and licenses. We’re going to bring that pipeline in from Canada. How in the world the president said no to that pipeline, I will never know.
... very little of what Governor Romney just said is true. We’ve opened up public lands. We’re actually drilling more on public lands than in the previous administration. And my -- the previous president was an oilman. And natural gas isn’t just appearing magically; we’re encouraging it and working with the industry.Getting the gist? Romney goes 'Obama hasn't drilled for enough oil or doubled down on coal,' and Obama goes, 'I have too.' Oh good! [Climate be damned.]
And when I hear Governor Romney say he’s a big coal guy -- and keep in mind when -- Governor, when you were governor of Massachusetts, you stood in front of a coal plant and pointed at it and said, this plant kills, and took great pride in shutting it down. And now suddenly you’re a big champion of coal.
So what I’ve tried to do is be consistent. With respect to something like coal, we made the largest investment in clean coal technology to make sure that even as we’re producing more coal, we’re producing it cleaner and smarter. Same thing with oil; same thing with natural gas.
And the proof is our oil imports are down to the lowest levels in 20 years, oil production is up, natural gas production is up, and most importantly, we’re also starting to build cars that are more efficient.
This exchange was particularly amusing:
MR. ROMNEY: In the last four years, you cut permits and licenses on federal land and federal waters in half.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Not true, Governor Romney.
MR. ROMNEY: So how much did you cut them by?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: It’s not true.
MR. ROMNEY: By how much did you cut them by, then?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Governor, we have actually produced more oil on --
MR. ROMNEY: No, no, how much did you cut licenses and permits on federal land and federal waters?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Governor Romney, here’s what we did. There were a whole bunch of oil companies --
MR. ROMNEY: No, I had a -- I had a -- I had a question --
PRESIDENT OBAMA: No, you -- no, you -- you -- you want --
MR. ROMNEY: -- and the question was how much did you cut them by?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: -- you want me to answer a question, I’m --
MR. ROMNEY: How much did you cut them by?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: -- I’m happy to answer the question.
MR. ROMNEY: All right, and it is?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Here’s what happened. You had a whole bunch of oil companies who had leases on public lands that they weren’t using. So what we said was, you can’t just sit on this for 10, 20, 30 years, decide when you want to drill, when you want to produce, when it’s most profitable for you. These are public lands. So if you want to drill on public lands, you use it or you lose it.
MR. ROMNEY: OK -- (inaudible) --
PRESIDENT OBAMA: And so what we did was take away --
MR. ROMNEY: That’s --
PRESIDENT OBAMA: -- those leases, and we are now reletting them so that we can actually make a profit.
MR. ROMNEY: And -- and -- and production on private -- on government lands is down.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: And the production is up. No it isn’t.
MR. ROMNEY: Production on government land of oil is down 14 percent.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Governor --
MR. ROMNEY: And production of gas is down 9 percent.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: What you’re saying is just not true. It’s just not true.
And it's not, unfortunately. Production on federal land fell 14% alright — but just in 2011. Over Obama's term, it's risen considerably. Which, clearly, is not the trend we need to be pursuing in our energy policy; same goes for coal. Obama had a great point when he showcased Romney's hypocrisy in exulting coal — as governor of Massachusetts, he'd condemned a polluting coal plant, saying quite literally "that plant kills people" — he just made it for all the wrong reasons. Obama wasn't trying to say Romney once had the right idea then (which he did) — he was trying to embarrass him for embracing coal now, in order to boost his own pro-coal credentials.
The entire energy debate was little more than a slugfest over who would more reliably drop more drills in the ground, who would have coal's back. The one redeeming moment of the debate came when Obama spoke up for wind power:
So for example, on wind energy, when Governor Romney says these are imaginary jobs, when you’ve got thousands of people right now in Iowa, right now in Colorado who are working, creating wind power, with good- paying manufacturing jobs, and the Republican senator in that -- in Iowa is all for it, providing tax credits to help this work and Governor Romney says, I’m opposed, I’d get rid of it, that’s not an energy strategy for the future. And we need to win that future, and I intend to win it as president of the United States.But it was a tiny thing, a pitch to a handful of wind-heavy swing state voters where the wind power production tax credit that's set to expire is quite popular.
And that was it. A mere mention of wind energy policy; the closest we got to breaking the climate silence.