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The Candidates on Energy Policy

Issue Tracker

Updated: October 31, 2012
This publication is now archived.

The cost and availability of energy resources have become contentious issues in the United States amid slow economic growth and high unemployment. On the presidential campaign trail, Republican candidate Mitt Romney has blamed rising gas prices on President Barack Obama's decision to temporarily block construction of the Keystone oil pipeline from Canada to the United States. Obama, meanwhile, has called for investing in alternative energy sources to reduce U.S. dependence on oil and gas.

Still, both candidates have advocated for a reduction in foreign oil imports and for an expansion of U.S. energy production in order to boost the economy and create new jobs. They also agree that increasing energy independence is critical to national security. However, Obama and Romney are at odds over the role government should play in subsidizing energy production--as well as which sectors should be favored--and regulating its environmental impact.

Editor's Note: Click here for more CFR Issue Trackers and other 2012 campaign resources, which examine the foreign policy and national security dimensions of the presidential race.

Barack Obama

Democratic Incumbent, Running Mate Joe Biden

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Obama entered the White House calling for growth in clean energy and promising to reduce U.S. dependence on oil, while expanding environmental regulation. In March 2011, Obama released a "blueprint" for a secure energy future (PDF), followed by a one-year energy progress report in March 2012. The administration says the country is on track to double renewable energy generation--including wind, solar, and geothermal production--above 2008 levels by the end of 2012.

In his 2011 State of the Union speech, Obama proposed that 80 percent of electricity production come from clean energy sources--such as nuclear, renewable, "clean coal," and "efficient" natural gas--by 2035. A year later, in his 2012 State of the Union speech, Obama cited the need for an "all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy"--a mantra often used by Republicans--and announced he would open more than 75 percent of potential offshore oil and gas resources, a move that drew vocal support from Republicans. He also said he would allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power three million homes.

Under Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency has pursued the controversial regulation of greenhouse gases emitted by power plants as well as rules targeting improved efficiency of vehicles. His administration accelerated the timetable for fuel economy standards of 39 miles-per-gallon for cars and 30 miles-per-gallon for light trucks-- enacted by the 2007 energy bill--and proposed more stringent standards to be put in place by 2025.

Timeline: Oil Dependence and U.S. Foreign Policy

In March 2010, Obama had announced opening up more federal lands and coastal areas to oil production, but the Gulf oil spill in April led to stricter adherence to drilling regulations and a restructuring of some oversight agencies. Obama has also continued to call for eliminating tax breaks for oil and gas companies, including a proposal to generate $41 billion in deficit reductions (TheHill) by nixing subsidies.

This past January, the administration decided to halt plans to build the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline intended to stretch from Canada to Texas. The administration said it made the decision based on its inability to meet a congressional deadline to assess issues raised, rather than on the merits of the project. The administration has said it is "moving toward a decision" on the pipeline by the first quarter of 2013.

In March, Obama announced $1 billion in tax credits and grants (Guardian) for alternative-energy cars and trucks. Later that month, Obama said there is enough oil being produced worldwide (NYT) to weather oil sanctions on Iran without suffering unbearable price increases, and was reportedly considering releasing oil from strategic reserves to help mitigate prices, as he did following the Libyan uprising in 2011.

On the campaign trail this summer, Obama has touted his administration's efforts to create jobs through its green energy initiatives, particularly in the wind energy industry. Obama has been a strong advocate of a tax credit that helps subsidize Iowa's wind sector, a credit that has been forcefully opposed by Romney.

In the second presidential debate, held on October 16, Obama said that while he recognizes that the United States was capable of harnessing traditional energy sources and creating domestic energy jobs, it must not give up innovating in the areas of clean energy technology. "And if we are only thinking about tomorrow or the next day and not thinking about ten years from now, we're not going to control our own economic future, because China, Germany -- they're making these investments. And I'm not going to cede those jobs of the future to those countries. I expect those new energy sources to be built right here in the United States."

During the final presidential debate, on October 22, Obama again touted his administration's efforts to make the United States more energy independent.

Mitt Romney

Republican Candidate, Running Mate Paul Ryan

Romney's energy plan focuses on "significant regulatory reform" (PDF), increased domestic production, and research and development. Romney proposes a new regulatory framework for the EPA that would "preserve environmental gains without paralyzing industry." This, his plan says, would include streamlining air rules for coal plants and reforming regulations for the nuclear industry. Romney supports ethanol subsidies (WSJ), noting in May 2011 that, "ethanol is an important part of our energy solution for this country."

Romney also has been critical of the Obama administration's green jobs strategy. He says the traditional energy sector--oil, gas, coal, and nuclear--has "remarkable job-creating potential." Romney advocates increasing domestic production of fossil fuels, including shale gas, and partnering with Canada and Mexico to develop these resources. He also said that his administration would help develop shale gas (PDF) in Europe to help allies reduce dependence on Russian gas.

Romney was critical of the Obama administration's position on the Keystone oil pipeline from Canada and the moratorium on offshore drilling that followed the 2010 oil spill. He said in his plan, "a Romney administration will pave the way for the construction of additional pipelines that can accommodate the expected growth in Canadian supply of oil and natural gas in the coming years."

In March, amid an ongoing debate over what to do about high gas prices, Romney blamed a lack of domestic drilling and the failure of the Keystone pipeline deal for the price surge. "Those things affect gasoline prices, long term," Romney said.

In August, Romney said he would end a government tax credit that partially subsidizes Iowa's wind industry, saying such government aid interferes with the free market. That month, Romney outlined a comprehensive energy proposal (Bloomberg) that would give states more control of energy production on federal lands, while sanctioning oil drilling off the East Coast. The plan calls for securing North American energy independence by 2020.

In the second presidential debate, Romney said that he fully supports developing renewable sources, just not at the expense of traditional ones like coal, oil, and natural gas. He also linked energy independence to the return of U.S. manufacturing jobs.

At the final presidential debate on October 22, Romney reiterated his calls for "North American energy independence," by "taking full advantage of oil, coal, gas, nuclear, and our renewables."

Romney, who has been criticized by Democrats for not sufficiently backing clean energy technologies, said that he supports government investment in research, not companies.

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