Solyndra, Keystone, the “war on coal”—energy issues have taken a starring role on the 2012 campaign trail. Here’s why: Both President Obama and Mitt Romney are using the debate over coal, drilling, and renewable energy as a proxy for their bigger fight about the economy, the budget, and the very role of government.
Romney, who as governor of Massachusetts endorsed programs to address climate change and boost renewable energy—and once even accused a coal plant of killing people—now embraces a fossil-fuel-friendly platform that includes expanding offshore drilling, rolling back clean-air regulations, and waffling on whether humans cause global warming.
Obama is also navigating tricky terrain. Despite the bankruptcy of Solyndra, the solar company that received a $535 million guaranteed loan from his economic stimulus, Obama continues to push the idea of renewable energy as a jobs creator. But he has also come under fire from the coal and oil industries for delaying the Keystone XL pipeline and unleashing new Environmental Protection Agency regulations on coal-fired power plants.
In response, the president has appropriated the GOP’s “all of the above” energy slogan, touts the nation’s boom in new natural-gas production, and is moving toward approving offshore drilling in Alaska. Those moves, however, have infuriated his environmental base while failing to quiet attacks from the fossil-fuel-funded Right.
Coal, one of the nation’s cheapest, most abundant, and dirtiest energy sources, has become a campaign issue as well.
As EPA rolls out new clean-air regulations, Republicans and the coal industry have fired back with ads accusing Obama of waging a “war on coal” that will shutter power plants, put miners out of jobs, and send electricity rates soaring. EPA’s new rules came out just in time to clash with the tea party’s fight against government overreach, making the agency a ready-made symbol for what the GOP calls “job-killing regulations.”
All that ramps up the fight for battleground states where coal is a key part of the economy—particularly in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. Renewable energy is also flaring: For Republicans, Solyndra is the gift that keeps on giving. The Romney campaign has seized on the company as a symbol of the failure of the economic stimulus and Obama’s green-jobs agenda.
Meanwhile, when the Romney campaign said that he would end a wind-energy tax credit, Obama pounced. In Midwestern battleground states such as Iowa, that tax credit helps support thousands of jobs while creating income for farmers that lease their land to wind developers—facts that the Obama campaign is making sure to hammer home to Iowans.
The legislative outlook for energy depends as much on the makeup of Congress after 2012 as it does on who wins the White House.
If Democrats keep control of the Senate while Republicans keep the House, it’s unlikely that either Obama or Romney could enact a comprehensive energy-reform bill. If Republicans win control of the Senate, it’s hard to imagine how Obama could move any major piece of legislation; he would be reduced to moving piecemeal regulations using his executive authority.
A Romney White House and an all-Republican Senate, however, could muscle through major changes, including opening up new federal lands to drilling and rolling back Clean Air Act regulations.
Short of that scenario, the next major vehicle for energy policy is likely to be a sweeping tax-reform package, which Congress is expected to take up in the next two years.
On the table will be a pile of energy tax subsidies, including $4 billion in tax breaks to the oil industry and about $1 billion each to various renewable-energy industries.