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Fuel for the Fire

President Obama and Mitt Romney have staked out very different positions on energy policy. In Romney’s case, he’s distanced himself from his own record.

The price of oil is inexorably on the ascent. Projections show that the coming years will bring spikes in oil and gasoline costs that will strain household budgets and kneecap economic growth. Also on the rise are fossil-fuel emissions, spewed daily from cars, power plants, and factories—all of which scientists say are leading to a warming planet, rising sea levels, increased flooding, longer droughts, and stronger, more-devastating storms.

The world’s economies are engaged in a fierce technology race to solve the problems of oil dependence and climate change. The first to come up with commercial-scale solutions will have an advantage in the global economy, although any technological fixes are unlikely to go mainstream without some kind of government help.


(RELATED: Candidates' Records | Candidates' Advisers | Candidates' Policies)

In the United States, the energy-production landscape has exploded. Advances in the technology of hydraulic fracturing, also known as “hydrofracking,” have unlocked vast oil and natural-gas resources. That’s great news in the quest to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, but it opens up a world of questions and fears that hydrofracking could contaminate water supplies and even cause earthquakes. A storm is brewing over how to safely regulate the technology without freezing what could be a domestic-energy bonanza.

Whoever wins the White House this fall will confront the increasingly urgent problems of a global energy economy and environment nearing dangerous tipping points.


(GRAPHIC: How Do Obama and Romney Stack Up?)

President Obama and Mitt Romney are well aware of the stakes; dozens of energy-themed speeches and attack ads have already hit the airwaves. Less certain is what each candidate would do on energy policy in office. Obama has been clear about his commitment to tackling climate change, reducing U.S. oil use, and ramping up clean-energy development, and he has flexed the muscles of the executive branch to bypass a querulous Congress and implement some of his policies. But if he wins a second term, he faces a challenge realizing major pieces of that vision, as Republicans are sure to focus on slashing government spending and regulation. A second-term energy agenda would largely boil down to which piecemeal policy changes the president could move past major political hurdles.

(RELATED: Last Week's Issue—The Economy)

For Romney, the question is which energy agenda he would bring to the White House: that of the Massachusetts governor who tasked his environment department with tackling climate change? That of the candidate whose economic adviser has endorsed a carbon tax to stop global warming? Or would it be the mission of the candidate who, in response to attacks from the tea party, walked back his stance on climate change, even questioning whether human actions are to blame.


Even those closest to Romney aren’t sure.


In 2003, as governor of a solidly blue state, Romney won cheers from green groups when he appointed a team of officials with strong environmental records to oversee a muscular climate-change and clean-energy agenda. Among them was Gina McCarthy, a brusque, straight-talking expert in environmental regulation from South Boston; Romney appointed her undersecretary for policy at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and charged her with developing the state’s first climate-protection action plan. Activists celebrated when Romney established emissions caps for coal-fired power plants, openly slamming pollution at a speech in front of an aging coal plant in Salem, Mass. The governor declared, “I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people; and that plant, that plant kills people.”

In the 2008 GOP presidential primary contest, rival John McCain not only identified climate change as a problem but also touted his leadership as a chief author of the Senate’s first major climate-change bill. Romney took a similar position; he hired as his campaign’s economic adviser Greg Mankiw, who called for taxing fossil-fuel pollution to curb climate change.

But in 2012, even as the scientific consensus that fossil-fuel emissions cause global warming has further solidified, the political landscape has shifted in the opposite direction. Instead of running against McCain for the GOP nomination, Romney ran against a field of tea party-aligned conservatives, many of whom denounce the body of climate science. The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the rise of super PACs, and the new pipelines for pouring money into campaigns have given fossil-fuel interests that oppose climate policy an outsized influence in the political process—and they made it clear that they would come after Republican candidates who endorsed climate-change policy.

So Romney, who as the head of investment firm Bain Capital was famous for making business decisions driven by data rather than ideology, has rejected his former position that human action probably causes climate change. One former Romney adviser, who asked not to be named in order to speak candidly, called the shift on climate change a “watershed moment.” The reversal signaled, perhaps more than any other of his policy reversals, evolutions, or flip-flops, Romney’s willingness to follow political expediency to the point of abandoning previous positions, even one tied to scientific, evidence-driven data.

This article appears in the May 5, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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