President Obama’s first reelection ad was about energy—an early sign that the issue would blast to the forefront of the campaign. It was a comeback to an earlier spot by Americans for Prosperity, the tea party group linked with energy conglomerate Koch Industries, which had attacked Obama for the bankruptcy of Solyndra, the solar company that defaulted on a $535 million federally guaranteed loan.
“Secretive oil billionaires attacking President Obama,” the reaction ad intoned, over shots of solar panels. “America’s clean-energy industry: 2.7 million jobs.” The first shots in the 2012 energy war had been fired, and the bullets have been flying ever since.
Energy usually gets a cursory mention in presidential elections, occasionally flaring up into media moments like the “Drill, baby, drill!” chants that Sarah Palin incited in 2008. But over the 18 months of this campaign season, energy has been at the heart of the fight for the White House, from Solyndra to the Keystone XL pipeline to the “war on coal.”
“Energy has not been this big an issue in a presidential campaign since the tumultuous years of the 1970s,” when the Arab oil embargo sent prices soaring and Americans waited in gas lines around the country, said Daniel Yergin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning energy historian. Last month, an analysis by The New York Times found that energy has been mentioned in campaign ads more than every other issue except jobs and the economy.
In an election year in which the biggest issues are the economy and the role of the federal government, energy—which, after all, is a cornerstone of the economy—has become a proxy for talking about all the other issues.
Thanks to a mix of luck, private enterprise, and federal policy, the nation’s energy economy has undergone profound transformations lately. And the changes have emerged just in time for the tsunami of campaign spending unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows corporate interests to invest unlimited amounts in political advertising. Energy interests, particularly oil, gas, and coal companies, have been among the most lavish spenders in this new world.
Over the past four years, breakthroughs in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” technology have unlocked vast resources of oil and natural gas, generating jobs along the way. Economic-analysis firms estimate that the fracking boom could create 600,000 to 1 million new jobs in the next decade.
And given a stagnant economy and both candidates’ struggles to offer solid ideas to create jobs for the nation’s 23 million unemployed, the new ones created by the fracking boom have proved irresistible.
“It’s about the only good thing that’s happened in the entire American economy with unambiguous job creation. For that reason alone, it’s a major topic in the campaign. And both candidates have wanted to capitalize on it,” said Bob McNally, a former White House energy official under George W. Bush. The two candidates have seized on the promise of new energy jobs, and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, especially, has made it a signature issue.
As domestic energy production has grown, Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency has rolled out a stream of clean-air regulations aimed at limiting the toxic pollution and greenhouse gases produced by coal-fired power plants. The rules hit just as a wave of tea party-fueled opposition to government regulation was cresting. Republicans and groups such as Americans for Prosperity seized on EPA as the ultimate symbol of what they term “job-killing regulations,” saturating the airwaves with attacks on the rules. The fight reopened the inflammatory debate on the validity of climate science.
Now Romney is campaigning on a vow to roll back EPA’s authority to regulate global warming, while some congressional candidates are pledging to shut down the agency altogether. And King Coal has jumped into the political fray in what it sees as a fight for its life.
“At stake is the future of the coal industry.… I’ve worked in 11 elections, and it’s the most important election of my lifetime,” said Mike Duncan, head of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry lobbying arm. Duncan is also a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and of American Crossroads, the Karl Rove-backed super PAC.
The coal campaign has even greater political heft because some of 2012’s most hotly contested presidential battleground states—including Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado—depend heavily on coal mining or cheap coal-fired electricity. So do Missouri and Montana, where tight races could determine which party controls the Senate. Duncan’s group has spent mightily on ads and voter outreach events in all those places.
Renewable energy, too, was also electrified by partisan politics the moment Solyndra went bankrupt. Romney has vowed to end a production tax credit for wind energy, which has contributed to the rapid growth of the nation’s wind industry, generating jobs manufacturing wind turbines in swing states Iowa and Colorado, for example, a fact frequently cited by the Obama campaign.
No matter who wins, the end of this campaign won’t signal the end of energy politics. Among the biggest players in the 2012 cycle was the American Petroleum Institute, the lobbying arm for big oil. The group launched a nationwide “Vote 4 Energy” campaign, including television ads, house parties, rallies, and outreach on Facebook and Twitter.
“To my knowledge, this kind of campaign by the oil industry was unprecedented,” said Jack Gerard, API’s president and a close friend of Romney’s. “But we’ve already reached 11 million people. It’s reshaping the political dynamic, and we intend to continue this campaign for the long term.”
This article originally appeared in print as "Fuel on the Fire."
This article appears in the October 13, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.