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Reps for Obama, Romney, debate energy and climate

Representatives of President Barack Obama and Republican contender Mitt Romney at last squared off on energy and climate issues Friday night. The debate served its purpose by helping the campaigns clarify their goals on one of the defining issues of the day. Whether either would be able to accomplish much that would distinguish one from the other as sitting presidents is less clear, to be sure, but the arrows point in distinctly different directions.

The venue for the debate was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Representing Obama was Joseph Aldy (left), who served as special White House assistant for energy and environment before stepping down in December 2010. Representing Romney was the campaign’s domestic policy director, Oren Cass (right). Both stuck to known positions, laid out most succinctly in responses to the Science Debate, but the back-and-forth was often useful. The debate covered everything from the Keystone XL pipeline to energy subsidies and how best to drive innovation. We will follow one of the primary threads below, but the entire affair will be posted on E&ETV as early as Monday or Tuesday.

First, let’s jump to the bottom line on global warming. Romney has said he believes that the globe is warming and that people are at least partly to blame. But he also says he believes there is plenty of scientific debate about the human contribution and the extent of the problem. When asked whether reducing emissions is a legitimate aim of the US government on Friday night, Cass responded with a single word: “No.”

The question was framed in the context of “clean coal”, and Cass went on to make it clear that Romney supports burning coal in abundance regardless of its impact on the climate. “What ‘clean coal’ used to mean, and what it should still mean outside of the Orwellian world, is coal that actually does not emit conventional pollutants that are harming health and the environment,” Cass said. And in case there was any doubt, he confirmed that reducing greenhouse-gas emissions “is not where governor Romney would put his emphasis.”

Aldy repeatedly pointed out that Obama has supported comprehensive climate legislation as well as a federal clean-energy standard, which would set overall requirements for clean electricity generation (without specifying particular technologies). But in the end, faced with staunch Republican opposition, the president was left with his authority to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. What about a carbon tax? Or something else? Aldy largely ducked such questions, once again pointing his finger at Republicans.

“The president needs to see a good-will gesture from the other side,” Aldy said. Without that, Obama will simply push forward with his authority under the Clean Air Act.

Cass argued — and he is not the first — that Obama’s climate agenda looks a lot like that of Romney (blank), and their energy agendas often seem to line up as well. Aldy and Cass did spent much of the debate on Friday trying to outdo each other in terms of their support for domestic oil and gas production. Broadly speaking, it seems quite clear that the United States is not likely to get comprehensive climate legislation under either candidate; fossil fuels are not likely to disappear either. But much can happen around the edges.

Aldy pointed out that US emissions were on par with 1990 levels during the first five months of this year. That may have changed once people turned on their air conditioners this summer, but if true it’s still an eye-popping statistic. The reason? In large part, it’s because utilities are switching from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas, although Aldy says energy efficiency regulations are also kicking in. The speed of this transition is being driven by sheer economics (gas is cheap and looks to remain so for a time, thanks to the ongoing domestic shale development). But the industry is also beginning to shut down the oldest, dirtiest and least-efficient coal plants in preparation for a wave of air quality regulations. This trend predates the Obama administration, but Aldy embraced the reduction in emissions, just as he heralded the air quality benefits of the administration’s mercury rule, which is the most significant (and controversial) new regulation in years. And he underscored a proposed power plant regulation that would effectively ban new coal-fired plants without carbon capture and storage.

“We’re going to use every tool we have available,” Aldy said, from improving energy efficiency in automobiles and appliances to promoting natural gas and renewables. “Let’s not just focus on fossil fuels.”

Cass went after the administration’s entire regulatory agenda (for conventional toxins, greenhouse gases and energy efficiency). In the end, the only area where he seemed to suggest a role for the government was in support of basic research. Instead of pumping billions of dollars into subsidies and individual companies and demonstration projects, Cass said, the government should stick to the “very early stages of research” and leave technology development and deployment to the private sector.

In the end it may well come down to innovation. As the shift toward natural gas illustrates, change can be fast when the price is right. But if mainstream climate science is correct, simply shifting from one fossil fuel to another won’t solve the long-term problem. Cheap fossil fuels could make the transition to low-carbon energy all the more difficult, and it’s not clear how much money the private sector is going to invest in reducing carbon emissions if there is no economic or regulatory incentive for doing so. But we’ll have to save those issues for another day.

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