The first televised debate between President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney showcased their very divergent views of what makes America work. Yet despite those differences, their respective platforms are surprisingly similar on an all-important topic energy.
While health care, abortion and public education spending all affect each of us on a very personal basis, what happens on the energy landscape will drive the economy in terms of job creation. Energy choices made by the next U.S. president will also influence the fate of the developing world, where some 80 percent of the world's population resides, but where only 30 percent of total energy is consumed.
There are critical differences between the energy policies of Obama and Romney, but mostly in rhetoric and emphasis. An exception to that generalization pertains to the overarching issue of global climate change.
Despite his positions when governor of Massachusetts, candidate Romney is now in step with the majority of his Republican compatriots in doubting the science behind climate change. And while President Obama once trumpeted his proposed policies to address climate change through placing penalties on carbon emissions, this issue has faded into the background as the economy has emerged as the central concern in this year's presidential race.
Oddly enough, one could argue that Obama is clearly taking the more conservative approach to energy. How? He is increasing efficiency standards for cars, appliances and our buildings the most frugal way to stretch our collective energy dollars. Former President Theodore Roosevelt of the GOP would have been right in lockstep with Obama on this one, as frugality was once the province of Republicans. But I digress.
Shades of gray
Before we dive any deeper into where the two presidential candidates differ, let's review where they essentially agree:
Both support nuclear power. Sacramento is the only community in the entire U.S. to shutter an operating nuclear reactor, Rancho Seco, by a vote of the people, back in 1989. The San Onofre nuclear reactor in Southern California has been offline since January, which means California has only one operating nuclear reactor: Pacific Gas and Electric's Diablo Canyon near San Luis Obispo. No matter what happens in Washington, D.C., California still has in place a de facto ban on nuclear power as long as the nation lacks a federal repository for nuclear waste.
Both support expanding reliance on domestic sources of oil. Romney has made this issue the centerpiece of his program for energy independence. Yet Obama has actually been more successful than oilman and former President George W. Bush in opening up new oil drilling opportunities. (In fact, Shell may soon begin drilling operations just outside the boundaries of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge this year.)
Neither president will likely change the current dynamic that thwarts efforts to drill off the coast of California, due to firmly entrenched environmental opposition.
Both support "clean coal." The push for "clean coal," through largely experimental carbon capture and sequestration technologies, is largely irrelevant to California, since the state's reliance on coal has been steadily shrinking and has been historically much lower than the 50 percent market share this indigenous fuel has enjoyed nationwide. The combination of new federal environmental regulations and low-cost natural gas supplies is shutting down coal plants all across the country, more than 120 at last count.
Both support greater reliance on domestic natural gas. Though they differ by matter of degrees, both Obama and Romney see natural gas as the cornerstone of our near-term electricity supply due to record low prices, thanks to fracking, which relies upon proprietary chemicals to extract natural gas from shale rocks. However, the Obama administration is starting to clamp down on fracking to limit reported environmental impacts on freshwater supplies. It will be interesting to see how the state's environmental permitting authorities react to recent proposals to commence fracking in the Salinas area of Monterey County and, under a Romney administration, how federal agency enforcement actions would differ.
The clean technology gap
The biggest difference between Obama and Romney on energy is their stance on renewable energy.
Republicans have actually backtracked on renewables since the George W. Bush administration, when the former Texas governor supported wind power.
Texas is, after all, the top wind energy producing state in the country, with utilities widely exceeding government targets for deployment.
Due in large part to opposition from the GOP, federal subsidies for wind power (that pales, by the way, against what other nations have been offering) is still up in the air. Factories are closing down in supply chain industries that were previously one of America's best "in-sourcing" success stories, as the domestic content of modern turbines goes up, not down, due to an influx of overseas companies setting up shop in the U.S.
While it's true that Obama's rosy predictions of the amount of employment that clean technologies such as renewables, smart grid, and electric vehicles generate have been way too optimistic, these are the technologies of the future. Not only do they represent the best bet for economic recovery domestically, they also provide the tools for developing nations to lift themselves out of poverty.
Clean energy technologies such as solar power create five to 10 more jobs per dollar invested than fossil fuels. They substitute labor for fuel costs. They also represent the smart investment bet. Why else would private equity markets be plowing more money into renewable energy than fossil fuels over the past few years, reversing decades-old trends?
Even the U.S. military, which aims to reduce energy consumption to zero for each of its military bases through increased reliance upon renewables and smart grid networks such as microgrids, plans to plow billions into renewable energy programs in the coming years.
Wind farms are hugely popular in Midwestern states such as Iowa, where wind royalties paid by private developers are saving family farms. Opposing the federal production tax credit which reduces the cost of wind power by just over 2 cents per kilowatt-hour is absurd when you consider that the federal government has been underwriting the fossil fuel and nuclear industry for decades. According to one recent tally, federal support for renewable energy has been traditionally 10 percent of the long-standing subsidies flowing to the fossil fuel industry.
Obama's "all of the above" approach to energy policy, which is overly cautious in my opinion, would, at a minimum, not derail some of the progress that is being made here in California on the economic development front. This is, after all, also the state that created the world's renewable energy industry on the watch of current Gov. Jerry Brown (when he still had hair and drove his brown Plymouth around downtown Sacramento in the 1970s).
Brown is trying to steer California back into its traditional leadership role on energy, and the state has some of the most aggressive renewable energy deployment and carbon reduction goals in the country. That's unlikely to change under either Obama or Romney. Clearly, Obama is more in tune with the goals of California on energy and would help accelerate rather than retard progress in developing new jobs through new clean energy technologies.
In the end, neither Obama nor Romney is taking the bold kind of steps needed to retool our economy through preferences on steering public and private investments in energy. But at least Obama would keep us moving in the right direction.