Presidential campaigns offer energetic energy debate at MIT

Representatives of Obama, Romney camps lay out differences in crucial policy domains of energy and the environment

Peter Dizikes

There could hardly be a more pressing issue than energy policy at a time of global warming, but it has rarely featured in this year’s presidential campaign. Until Friday, October 5, at MIT, that is, when representatives of President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, former Gov. Mitt Romney, squared off in a crisp debate about energy, revealing significant differences between the candidates.

At the event, hosted by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) and the MIT Energy Club, Oren Cass, domestic policy director for Romney, emphasized that the former Massachusetts governor believes increased domestic fossil-fuel production should be the principal priority of energy policy, while asserting that government should play a minor role incentivizing energy technology deployment, and dismissing the need for assertive policymaking on climate matters.

There has been a recent “energy revolution” in the techniques used to extract fossil fuels, Cass asserted, making “energy independence on this continent…a potential reality for the first time in decades.” The pressing issue, he said, is whether “we embrace the revolution that actually has occurred…or do we attempt to stifle it?”

The Obama administration, Cass charged, has invested too heavily in promoting alternative energy, and has been insufficiently aggressive in backing fossil fuels, by not opening enough public lands and offshore waters for oil and gas drilling, and not yet approving the Keystone XL pipeline, which is intended to deliver oil to the United States from Canada. “The administration’s policies are misaligned with the goal of increased production,” Cass said.

Watch the debate on E&

Representing President Barack Obama, Joe Aldy, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government who served as a special assistant to Obama for energy and environment in 2009 and 2010, by contrast made the case that an “all-of-the-above strategy” is needed to address America’s energy needs—one that includes increased production, technological innovation, and efficiency.

“When I think about what the American public wants, it’s to look for the kind of balanced approach the president is pursuing,” Aldy said, adding: “We’re going to use every tool we have available. Let’s not just focus on fossil fuels. We can do a lot in renewables, whether it’s for biofuels, wind, or solar. We need to be creative in how we do this. We need to take advantage of opportunities [for] energy efficiency.” While domestic oil production is at a 14-year high, Aldy said, Obama has also signed new fuel-efficiency standards for the nation’s automotive fleet that will mandate an average of 54.5 mpg by the year 2025.

Cass and Aldy also presented differing views on the government’s proper role in fostering energy innovation. Cass said that Romney supports ARPA-E, the federal government’s program to develop new clean-energy technologies, which was first funded with $400 million from the American recovery and reinvestment Act—the so-called “stimulus” bill—that Obama signed in early 2009. However, Cass noted a few times, Romney would prefer to see the lion’s share of government backing for innovation go toward early-stage basic research.

“Ultimately the biggest source of difference [between the campaigns]…is the question of what is the right way to promote innovation,” Cass said, adding that Romney believes in “government support in the very early stages of research, and reliance on the private sector to commercialize technologies to bring down their costs and to hopefully succeed in the market.” By contrast, Cass asserted, Obama has supported “massive subsidies for chosen industries…which, in our judgment, has not been a success.”

Aldy countered that the Obama administration has not only helped advance clean energy innovation through its ARPA-E grants, but added that the total of $90 billion spent on clean energy in the stimulus bill has created an estimated 250,000 jobs. “We need to continue to diversify…and continue to advance wind and solar,” he said, asserting that there is “a lot of job creation going on, it’s high-quality jobs in the manufacturing sector.”

The 90-minute debate, in front of a crowd of several hundred in MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, was moderated by Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief and publisher of Technology Review. The campaign representatives hewed closely to their time allowances throughout the debate, and Pontin permitted them a few unscheduled but concise rebuttals to address areas of particular disagreement. In addition to the moderator, three journalists with energy reporting experience in the print and web media, three students from area universities, and an MIT Knight Science Journalism fellow offered questions at the forum.

The campaign representatives laid out contrasting visions about policies regarding climate change. Asked whether Romney, as president, could forge an agreement with congress about regulating or taxing carbon emissions, Cass said that the candidate’s position was “to focus on innovation, not the pricing of carbon.” Cass also repeatedly criticized Obama for not being more direct about his current position on so-called cap-and-trade legislation and a possible carbon tax, among other matters. In response, Aldy noted that, after the House of Representatives passed cap-and-trade legislation in mid-2009, Obama “could not find any Republicans willing to work on a bill in the Senate in 2010” involving cap-and-trade or a Clean Energy Standard, even those who had previously supported such measures.

Another sharp disagreement arose over energy efficiency. Aldy pointed out that the Romney energy plan failed to mention energy efficiency. Cass dismissed efficiency measures as being “most of the time a solution in search of a problem.”

The discussion also turned to the environmental effects of energy production. One of the sharpest areas of disagreement pertained to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, issued in 2011, which regulate emissions from coal-fired powerplants.

“The mercury standard makes incredible sense in terms of health,” Aldy said, mentioning the EPA’s estimate that the law will prevent 11,000 premature deaths per year.

Cass argued that the benefits did not equal the costs of the measure, including the “unemployment of a significant number of workers” at coal plants that could be shuttered on account of the measure. All told, the measure constitutes “one of the most outrageously unjustified regulations the country has ever seen,” Cass said.

In his reply, Aldy described that characterization of the regulation as “shocking.” He also noted that the alleged war on coal was simply a reflection of low natural gas prices, so that many coal plants are losing out to natural gas in the marketplace.

The two representatives did find common ground on a statement Aldy made early on in Friday evening’s proceedings: “There is a clear choice in this election.”

This article appears in the issue of Energy Futures.

Policy and economics

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