Last month, on the same day that Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney stood beside an oil rig in Fort Lupton, Colo., criticizing the Obama administration’s energy policies, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar met with energy executives in Texas to discuss the dunes sagebrush lizard, a species endangered by oil and gas production. The contrast between the two scenes was striking. While Romney was on display as a champion of traditional fuel sources, one of the president’s top aides on energy was caught in the open trying to balance increased production with environmental protection.
Romney was bashing Obama in a key battleground state, one that Salazar served for six years as attorney general and four as a U.S. senator, and then helped Obama carry by 9 percentage points over GOP presidential nominee John McCain in the 2008 election. Salazar, meanwhile, was hundreds of miles away in a state that Obama won’t win in November—talking with drillers still angry with the administration for imposing a six-month moratorium on deepwater production after the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The disparate scenes exemplify the challenge that Obama and his team face in getting out the administration’s energy message. They’re caught in a trap of their own making, handing Romney an opportunity he seems bent on seizing. While the Republican standard-bearer can unrepentantly promote fossil fuels—with ample help from the GOP-controlled House, Obama’s call for an “all of the above” strategy means that he’s advocating wind power alongside increasing oil production in the Gulf. Unfortunately for the president, many Americans view him as more of believer in the former than the latter.
Obama does have a have a story to tell on fossil fuels, but he’s not entirely comfortable telling it, for risk of roiling his environmentalist base. The United States is now producing more oil and gas than at any other time in its history. Even though his administration is moving steadily toward opening the Arctic Ocean for drilling this summer, Obama rarely mentions that on the trail. And as Republicans repeatedly force the issue of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that Obama delayed in January, all he can say at this point is that he favors half of it.
Obama’s highest-profile surrogates on energy aren’t much help. Salazar has done more traveling than most of his administration colleagues, visiting seven states besides Texas in just the past month, but as with that dunes sagebrush lizard, he’s talking conservation, not oil and gas. Salazar remains, for many, a polarizing figure for his halting response to the Gulf spill—and the drilling moratorium instituted afterward.
To Republicans and some Democrats, the drilling ban was evidence of outright hostility to gas and oil. “It is an example of how the actions that they’ve taken make it more difficult to now espouse an all-of-the-above policy,” said Gale Norton, Interior secretary in the George W. Bush administration. “Certainly those who are within the industry are very suspicious about [the administration’s] approach to traditional energy sources.”
Neither is Salazar viewed as an overly effective messenger for Obama on the issue, his duties to protect endangered species aside. “It’s not exactly like he’s a particularly dynamic character,” said Michael McKenna, a GOP lobbyist for the energy industry. “He’s about as exciting as a soap dish.”
Then there’s Energy Secretary Steven Chu. When he surfaces in public (which occurs less and less frequently), he is linked in the public’s mind with Solyndra, the now-bankrupt solar-energy company that defaulted on $535 million in loan guarantees from his department. As befitting a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Chu has had a tendency to speak his green-energy mind, as when he said that the administration was less interested in lowering gas prices than reducing oil dependency.
Obama’s crew also includes Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, both of whom are limited in what they can relay about Obama’s energy views. Jackson’s name has become synonymous with what House Republicans call “job-killing” EPA regulations, such as air-pollution limits on coal-fired plants. Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, may be the Cabinet’s most effective and well-traveled campaigner, but he can really speak only to the administration’s not-always-popular biofuels push.
Nor can Obama fall back on congressional Democrats. As one might expect from a diverse caucus, few embrace the president’s check-every-box approach. Some support more environmental regulation and clean-energy incentives; others from drilling states favor incentives for the oil and gas industry. In the past several years, the two factions have rarely come together, as the Senate’s failure to produce a cap-and-trade bill to reduce carbon emissions illustrates.
“Congress is not willing to move ahead,” said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who recently drafted legislation to establish a clean-energy standard, as Obama advocates. Bingaman, who ends a 30-year Senate career in January, already concedes that the bill is doomed.
While Obama faces an intransigent Congress with little appetite for his proposals, Romney is backed by a chorus of congressional Republicans having a field day exploiting Americans’ anxiety over gasoline prices. This week, the House pushed a bundle of measures to dramatically expand drilling and roll back environmental regulations. The GOP’s Domestic Energy and Jobs Act has no chance of becoming law, but that’s not the point.
In fact, of the nearly 17,000 negative campaign ads that aired throughout the country in April, 81 percent focused on energy, according to data compiled by New York-based Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. Gas prices may have been dropping nationally in recent weeks, but you wouldn’t know that from the rhetoric.
“The president is both taking the heat and carrying the water,” said David DiMartino, a Democratic strategist. “There’s been so much money spent distorting his position that it’ll be hard for him to overcome that.”
This article appears in the June 23, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.