Romney’s repositioning on climate change has left even those closest to him uncertain about how he would govern on energy issues if elected. Mankiw, who endorsed the carbon-tax proposal, is still one of Romney’s chief economic advisers. But the candidate has recently hired as a top energy adviser Oklahoma oil billionaire Harold Hamm, who made his fortune in using fracking methods to extract oil and gas. Another major adviser is Jim Talent, a former senator from Missouri and a partner in the D.C. lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs, which counts among its clients Peabody Energy, the largest coal company in the country. Romney’s campaign plan details a standard Republican energy platform: Increase oil drilling offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and roll back the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations on coal-fired power plants and oil refineries. On climate change, Romney says he would strip away EPA’s authority to regulate carbon pollution.
“Which path would he pursue? It’s really hard to say,” said Jim DiPeso, policy director of the group ConservAmerica, formerly known as Republicans for Environmental Protection. “His record in Massachusetts is pretty good from our standpoint.… There’s a moderate streak there—I’m hopeful that elements of that will reemerge. But he can’t do too much of that, because then he’ll be attacked by conservatives.”
Obama campaigned in 2008 on progressive environmentalists’ dream platform: Attack climate change with a sweeping cap-and-trade program, create a national mandate for renewable-electricity production, and invest $150 billion over a decade in clean-energy research and development.
He has, for the most part, been faithful to that vision, even though he has been unable to enact much of it. The president pushed a cap-and-trade and renewable-electricity bill in Congress, but it died in the Senate, and Republican campaign strategists have since successfully turned support for cap-and-trade into political poison. Obama invested a massive $40 billion in federal spending on clean energy in the 2009 stimulus package—including the $535 million loan guarantee to solar company Solyndra, which subsequently went bankrupt, pretty much killing short-term prospects for federal clean-energy spending. In the wake of cap-and-trade’s demise in Congress, Obama has used his executive authority to push through EPA regulations on climate change, vehicle fuel efficiency, and clean air. Republicans have savaged the rules as “job-killing,” and industry interests and many state governments are suing to undo them. (In one sign of how far Romney has shifted from his former views, the official in charge of clean-air regulations in Obama’s EPA is Gina McCarthy, who once helped Romney craft his climate-change plan.)
Last summer, Obama was on track to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to import heavily carbon-polluting oil from Canadian tar sands, but after environmentalists staged a series of White House rallies against the project, he rejected it—temporarily, at least.
As the president has come under attack from the right this campaign season, he has made some concessions to industry. Last August, he delayed a major EPA smog regulation to the delight of coal-plant owners, in part because the rule would chiefly affect power plants in 2012 election-battleground states. To the horror of many environmental groups, Obama is moving ahead with plans to allow Shell Oil to begin exploratory drilling in federal waters in the Arctic Ocean this summer. And for months earlier this year, as gasoline prices rose and Republicans attacked the president for his energy regulations, Obama almost never mentioned the words “climate change.”
Still, he has made it clear that he stands by the science that climate change is caused by fossil-fuel emissions and is an urgent problem. He proposes to address it mainly through policies that wean the United States from dependence on coal and oil and further the widespread use of new energy technologies such as solar, wind, and electric-battery-powered cars.
The question for Obama, then, is not what his beliefs on energy and climate change are, but rather, given the political landscape and the failure of his biggest effort to transform energy policy, what would be politically possible for him to achieve in a second term.
No matter who is president, to a large extent, the party that wins control of the Senate in November will determine energy policy in the near term. If Democrats retain their Senate majority and Republicans keep control of the House, either a President Obama or a President Romney would find it difficult to advance more than piecemeal portions of his energy agenda through Congress. If Obama keeps the White House and Republicans control both chambers of Congress, he probably wouldn’t be able to get anything through on Capitol Hill; indeed, an all-red Congress would probably put Obama in the position of defending his current policies. Republicans in Congress have sought repeatedly to wipe out EPA’s clean-air and clean-water rules; to end production tax credits and loan-guarantee programs for clean energy; and to aggressively expand offshore drilling. In that scenario, Obama’s challenge will largely be whether he could extract any deals from Republicans to forestall wholesale rollbacks. In the absence of any help from Congress, Obama would likely continue to use his executive authority to implement environmental regulations, such as a controversial rule to limit carbon emissions expected after the election.