Under assault from Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, President Obama and other leading Democrats are planning a vigorous defense of the administration’s track record on energy issues, highlighting a sharp drop in oil imports, a doubling in renewable energy output and improved fuel efficiency in new vehicles.
Those improvements took place against a backdrop of rising U.S. oil and natural gas production, though the credit for that lies largely with the private sector’s advances in drilling technology and the strong incentives created by high crude oil prices.
U.S. oil production is higher than it has been since mid-1998. U.S. natural gas production is higher than it has ever been — creating controversy over drilling that uses hydraulic fracturing technology, but also helping the administration meet its goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“Our emphasis will be on the president’s ‘all of the above’ energy program,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in advance of his speech at the convention Tuesday night. “From everything I have read and seen, including Gov. Romney’s speech in Tampa, they live in the same fantasy land of the past: that the ‘drill baby drill’ approach will get the United States to energy independence.”
“There’s actually quite a bit of overlap between Democratic and Republican policy right now,” said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center. “Both have the ‘all of above’ mantra. Both are supporting production increases and speaking proudly about the strength of the American energy resource. Both have suggested a strong desire for an increase in energy self-sufficiency.”
There are many key differences, however.
Energy experts agree that Obama can claim credit for getting automobile companies to agree in early 2009 to meet ambitious new fuel efficiency standards — standards Romney has opposed.
Those standards have already contributed to new vehicles getting 3 to 4 miles more for every gallon of gasoline, according to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. Improvements are critical because U.S. cars and trucks consume more than one in every eight barrels of oil produced worldwide. Most oil company economists agree that U.S. motor fuel consumption has probably peaked as a result of the new standards; BP’s energy outlook, crediting government standards, says engine efficiency will double over the next 20 years.
Obama also set aside tens of billions of dollars in the economic stimulus bill for grants, loans and loan guarantees for renewable energy and new battery, solar and lighting technologies.
Republicans have criticized the programs as ill-fated efforts to help politically connected firms, including the now-bankrupt solar panel maker Solyndra, which received $535 million in federal loans. Because of the long-term nature of those investments, though, it may be years before it’s clear how good a job the Energy Department has done parceling out three times as much money as it ordinarily has in its annual budget.
But Democrats can say that Obama was able to double the nation’s output of wind and solar energy, and that there has been a substantial increase in the number of jobs created for workers making components of wind turbines or solar panels. Whereas Obama has backed production tax credits for wind projects, Romney is opposed to those tax credits.
Salazar said that Romney’s policy would “bring about a death knell to the wind industry, which has been a great job creator for the people of America.”
Romney also differs with Obama over the extent of drilling. While Obama has proposed an expansion of offshore waters open to oil and gas drilling, Romney would lift all restrictions, including on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Romney would also take away the Interior Department’s authority to lease federal lands and give that to state governments. Romney argued that the move would speed up the pace of awarding drilling permits.
Salazar counters that “the public lands are a crown jewel of the United States. . . . We don’t think you ought to drill anywhere, anytime, recklessly as in the past. You have to have a balance.”
He added, “there’s no way we think it makes sense for American citizens to turn over those lands to private ownership or to give away public parks. . . . These treasures belong to the American people.”
Overall, the energy landscape today looks far different than it did just four years ago, when gasoline prices were sky high and the scarcity of oil and the need to address climate change topped the Democratic agenda.