The second debate between President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney featured more energy than the first, and not just because Obama struck a livelier tone. Tuesday night's rematch began with multiple quarrels about energy policy, including a tense, face-to-face exchange on oil drilling that prompted chants of "Fight!" on Twitter.
Obama and Romney never came to blows, but they did discuss energy issues with passion — certain issues, anyway. Oil, coal and natural gas received lots of attention, as did gasoline prices. The candidates briefly bickered about wind energy, yet to the dismay of environmentalists, their recent silence on climate change continued.
CNN's Candy Crowley moderated the debate, overseeing a town hall format in which audience members asked the questions. Obama was the first to bring up energy, offering a big-picture response to the opening question about job creation. After saying he intends to boost the country's manufacturing sector and education system, Obama segued to this explanation of his energy policy:
"We've got to control our own energy ... not only oil and natural gas, which we've been investing in, but also we've got to make sure we're building the energy sources of the future, not just thinking about next year, but 10 years from now, 20 years from now. That's why we've invested in solar and wind and biofuels, energy-efficient cars."
Romney didn't respond to that initial volley, but the energy debate quickly heated up after that. Here's a topic-by-topic breakdown of who said what:
The second question focused on gas prices, specifically asking Obama if he should try to reduce them: "Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it's not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?"
Obama first reiterated his earlier point, noting that production of fossil fuels and clean energy has grown under his watch. He pointed to a 16-year high in U.S. oil drilling, but also cited efforts to make cars burn gasoline more efficiently. "That's why we doubled fuel efficiency standards on cars," he said. "That means that in the middle of the next decade, any car you buy, you're going to end up going twice as far on a gallon of gas."
The discussion soon veered into oil drilling (more on that below), but it later returned to gasoline when Romney mentioned rising prices at the pump. "When the president took office, the price of gasoline here in Nassau County was about $1.86 a gallon," he said, referring to the debate site in Hempstead, N.Y. "Now it's four bucks a gallon."
Gasoline prices have risen in the last four years, but economists widely agree they were artificially low in 2008 due to the global economic crisis. And this set up Obama for a zinger that drew muted laughter from the audience:
"[T]he economy was on the verge of collapse; ... we were about to go through the worst recession since the Great Depression as a consequence of some of the same policies that Governor Romney is now promoting. So it's conceivable that Governor Romney could bring down gas prices, because with his policies we might be back in that same mess."
Some of the debate's tensest moments came when the candidates discussed fossil fuels. Obama got things started in his response to the gasoline question, citing high oil and gas yields as well as the need for efficiency, then pivoting to accuse Romney of favoring fossils. "Governor Romney will say he's got an all-of-the-above plan, but basically his plan is to let the oil companies write the energy policies," Obama said. "So he's got the oil and gas part, but he doesn't have the clean energy part."
Romney responded by repeating a claim from the first debate, arguing that all new oil development has been on private land. "Oil production is down 14 percent this year on federal land, and gas production is down 9 percent," he said. "Why? Because the president cut in half the number of licenses and permits for drilling on federal lands and in federal waters." He added that he believes in U.S. renewable capabilities, but said Obama "has not been Mr. Oil or Mr. Gas or Mr. Coal."
While Obama was panned after the first debate for seeming aloof and rarely challenging Romney's facts, he often snapped back at his opponent Tuesday night. "Very little of what Governor Romney just said is true," he countered. "We've opened up public lands. We're actually drilling more on public lands than in the previous administration." (According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, "oil production on federal lands is up slightly in 2011 when compared to 2007.")
Environmentalists may have cringed at seeing the candidates argue over who's friendlier to oil and coal, but this squabble led to one of the night's most memorable scenes — Obama and Romney, face to face, barking and gesturing about oil production. Here's a clip of the exchange (see full video below):
After several seconds of awkward interruptions, Obama gave this answer to Romney's question about drilling permits and licenses for public lands and waters:
"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."
The debate over fossil fuels also delved into the Keystone XL oil pipeline, with Romney arguing he would approve the controversial 1,700-mile conduit for Canadian oil sands. "We're going to bring that pipeline in from Canada," he said. "How in the world the president said no to that pipeline, I will never know." Obama responded that "I'm all for pipelines," and noted the U.S. has built enough pipelines "to wrap around the entire Earth once." Environmentalists likely again grimaced at this, but Obama followed with a caveat that "what I'm not for is us ignoring the other half of the equation" — i.e., balancing oil investments with clean energy.
That served as a segue into the night's only specific — albeit brief — discussion of renewable energy. After accusing Romney of favoring fossil fuels at the expense of renewables, Obama portrayed him as dismissive of wind power in general:
"[O]n 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 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."
The debate abruptly moved on, but not for a lack of onstage interest in the subject. Romney tried to respond, but only got out this before Crowley shifted to a question about taxes (her interjections have been removed to save space):
"Candy, Candy, Candy, I don't have a policy of — of stopping wind jobs in Iowa and that — they're not phantom jobs. They're real jobs. ... I appreciate wind jobs in Iowa and across our country. I appreciate the jobs in coal and oil and gas. I'm going to make sure ... that taking advantage of our energy resources will bring back manufacturing to America. We're going to get through a very aggressive energy policy, 3.5 million more jobs in this country. It's critical to our future."
The quote in question came from this March 2012 op-ed Romney penned for Ohio's Columbus Dispatch newspaper. Here's the line to which Obama was referring: "In place of real energy, Obama has focused on an imaginary world where government-subsidized windmills and solar panels could power the economy."
Despite being "one of the biggest issues of this generation," according to a recent statement from Obama, climate change has yet to come up in any of the general election debates. Crowley did at least acknowledge this, however, during an appearance on CNN late Tuesday night. She told her colleagues that one audience member submitted a question about climate change, but she decided not to include it. "I had a climate change question," Crowley said. "Just so you know, for all you climate change people." Bizarrely, she explained her decision to exclude the still-unmentioned topic as an effort "to get some variety with the questions."
The third and final presidential debate will be held Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla. To see more of Tuesday night's showdown, check out the full video below:
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