President Obama’s campaign and a super PAC supporting his reelection began blitzing swing states this week with television advertisements depicting the president as a champion of green energy and Mitt Romney as a pawn of big oil companies.
The attack against Romney is a return-fire to the Republican front-runner’s charge that Obama is overly focused on renewable resources, deliberately driving up gas prices, and delaying projects like the Keystone XL Pipeline.
But an examination of the two men’s records reveals that Obama and Romney are hardly at opposite ends of the energy policy spectrum. Each has leveled criticisms against the other that could also apply to himself.
As Massachusetts governor, Romney was, by Republican standards, an alternative-energy advocate who seemed to look on elevated gas prices as a spur on the boot of innovation. Obama, for his part, has over the years received more campaign contributions from BP — responsible for the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago — than any other politician, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Both the president and Romney have warmed to fossil fuel production in an election year when unemployment rates and gas prices are high.
The Obama and Romney campaigns even use the same phrase to summarize their energy strategies: “all of the above.’’
“For all the huffing and puffing you hear during a presidential election, the reality is there is a lot more consensus on energy than on other issues,’’ said Pietro S. Nivola, a senior fellow in governance studies at The Brookings Institution and an expert on energy and American politics. “There’s really not a big chasm.’’
Romney’s assertion that Obama “wanted to see gasoline prices go up’’ is based on statements Obama made during the 2008 campaign.
Asked then if that year’s high gas prices could aid energy policy, Obama said, “I think that I would have preferred a gradual adjustment. The fact that this is such a shock to American pocketbooks is not a good thing. But if we take some steps to help people make the adjustment . . . I think, ultimately, we can come out of this stronger and have a more efficient energy policy than we do right now.’’
More recently, Obama has said explicitly that he wants lower gas prices.
Industry analysts challenge the notion that a president exercises much control over what consumers pay. “Oil is one of the most widely traded commodities in the world,’’ said Keith Crane, director of the Environment, Energy and Economic Development Program at the RAND Corp. “You pay what the global market dictates.’’
But Romney interprets the president’s words to mean he supports expensive gas as a way to advance his renewable energy agenda.
If that was Obama’s implication, Romney made a similar one as governor. Urged by members of his party to suspend Massachusetts’ 23.5-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Romney rejected the proposal and instead directed state residents to “find ways to conserve energy, to utilize it more efficiently.’’
When his lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, led a second push for a moratorium on the state gas tax in 2006, Romney said he would rather encourage the production and purchase of fuel-efficient vehicles than the lowering of gas prices.
As he sees a general-election bout with Obama, however, Romney has outlined energy solutions that focus almost exclusively on nonrenewable resources. He supports fracking, a method of extracting oil and gas by injecting chemicals - including known carcinogens - into the ground, as an economic boon. He also has backed the Keystone XL Pipeline for transporting Canadian crude oil to Oklahoma and Texas, and he lampooned the president for his reluctance to approve the project.
“When someone says, ‘We want to bring in a pipeline that’s going to create tens of thousands of jobs to bring oil in from Canada,’ how in the world could you say no?’’ Romney said last month.
A campaign spokeswoman said that while Romney recognizes the promise of renewable resources, he has been a consistent promoter of fossil-fuel extraction.
“As president, governor Romney will pursue the genuine, all-of-the-above energy strategy that he has always advocated,’’ Romney press secretary Andrea Saul said. “He will expand development of fossil-fuel resources, support basic research in new energy technologies, including new ways of extracting and using fossil fuels, and streamline the regulatory environment to provide a level playing field on which all energy producers can flourish.’’
The Obama campaign offered a similar description of the president’s energy philosophy: “President Obama has long supported an all-of-the-above energy strategy to develop all of our energy resources from nuclear, biofuels, oil, and everything in between,’’ spokesman Michael Czin said. “Under President Obama’s leadership, we have moved forward with that strategy.’’
Obama, though he has not stopped praising the environmental virtues of green energy, also has started bringing domestic oil production to the fore. A new campaign ad begins by pointing out that US oil production is at an eight-year high under Obama.
After his administration put off the Keystone pipeline, saying it needed more time to study its environmental impact, Obama two weeks ago called for expedited construction of its southern leg.
Romney has contrasted Obama’s Keystone recalcitrance with the president’s $528 million investment in Solyndra, the California solar panel manufacturer that went bankrupt last fall.
Yet Romney, as governor, also invested in a failed solar company - though on a smaller financial scale. In 2003, Romney announced the creation of a $15 million Green Energy Fund that would provide grants and loans to renewable energy businesses in the state.
One of the first beneficiaries was Evergreen Solar Inc., which received a $2.5 million grant. Evergreen Solar, like Solyndra, filed for bankruptcy last year.
As governor, Romney was not an unabashed supporter of all things green: He was a vocal opponent of the Cape Wind project and backed a Bush administration proposal in 2005 to extract oil from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
But neither was he so intent on drilling, nor so eager to ratchet down fuel prices for commuters from sprawling suburban neighborhoods, as he claims to be today.
At the same time he defended drilling in Alaska, Romney withheld support for prospecting in the Georges Bank area off Cape Cod. Asked for this story whether Romney would condone drilling there when a federal ban expires in 2017, the campaign did not answer directly but referred to Romney’s policy handbook: “A Romney administration will permit drilling wherever it can be done safely, taking into account local concerns,’’ the entry reads, in part.
Running for governor in 2002, Romney bemoaned the “impact of traffic sprawl on our quality of life’’ and vowed to build the MBTA commuter rail line to Greenbush. He also proposed a decade of sales tax clemency on hybrid vehicles and lower excise taxes on fuel-efficient cars.Callum Borchers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.