The price of oil is inexorably on the rise, fueled by an insatiable demand from China and India that’s set to soar in the coming decade. Projections show that the years ahead will bring unpredictable spikes in oil and gasoline costs that will strain household budgets and kneecap economic growth. Fossil-fuel emissions are also increasing, 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.
In the United States, the energy-production landscape has exploded. Advances in the technology of hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” 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 fracking 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.
President Obama, Mitt Romney, and the super PACs supporting their campaigns 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 about energy policy once in office. Obama has been clear about his commitment to tackling climate change, reducing U.S. oil demand, 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 will face a challenge to enact major pieces of that vision, as Republicans continue 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.
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, or 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 so far as to question 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.” As governor, Romney also backed clean-energy spending—he was a cheerleader for a state renewable-energy trust fund that pumped tens of millions of dollars into solar and other clean-energy companies and programs under his watch.
In the 2008 GOP presidential primary contest, rival John McCain not only identified global warming 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, and his campaign hired former George W. Bush economic adviser Greg Mankiw, who called for taxing fossil-fuel pollution to curb climate change. In his 2010 book, No Apology, Romney wrote, “I believe that climate change is occurring.… I also believe that human activity is a contributing factor,” although he added, “I am uncertain how much of the warming, however, is attributable to man and how much is attributable to factors out of our control.” In the book, however, he did praise Mankiw’s idea of an energy “tax swap”—taxing gasoline or carbon pollution in exchange for cutting taxes elsewhere.
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 science behind climate change. 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.
This article appears in the August 25, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.