A question from a voter at Tuesday evening's town hall debate -- regarding whether it was within the purview of the government to control the price of gas -- sent President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney into a war of words over energy policy, and neither actually answered the question.
Instead, both candidates introduced some of the same energy talking points that have animated the campaign for months, though as presented, Romney's charges held the least amount of water. He blamed the Obama administration, for example, for the fact that gas prices have doubled over the last four years, and he hammered the president for stalling oil and gas production by curtailing leases on federal land, and for introducing policies that will run the coal industry into the ground. Romney also argued that he is a supporter of renewable energy -- just not to the exclusion of fossil fuels.
Obama, meanwhile, largely touted his record on both fossil fuels and renewable energy investments, though he sometimes took credit for things that aren't entirely in his control. Let's run down some of the assertions.
GOVERNMENT AND GASOLINE PRICES
The answer to the voter's original question, of course, is that, generally speaking, administration policy has minimal impact on gas prices. Oil is a global commodity, and its price is set by, and subject to the whims of, a global energy market over which an American president has little control. Increasing domestic drilling -- a key part of the Romney energy plan introduced in August -- won't significantly alter the price at the pump. As the Congressional Budget Office noted in May, more U.S. oil on the world market would almost certainly be offset by adjustments in production by other countries, all but erasing any price impacts.
A 2011 report from the Federal Trade Commission provides a useful primer on the factors that tend to influence gas price fluctuations.
Romney's charge that gas prices have doubled over the last four years is roughly true, and it has been a popular talking point since the Republican primaries. However, gas prices plummeted with the collapse of the economy in late 2008, just as Obama was taking office, and the doubling has really only restored prices -- though not quite fully -- to where they were prior to the recession, or more to the point, prior to Obama. As data from the Energy Information Administration shows, retail gas prices were also climbing steadily under the eight years of the Bush administration, hitting a high in the summer of 2008. Bush can't really be blamed for that increase any more than Obama.
INCREASED FUEL ECONOMY
The current president can very much take credit -- and he did so at this evening's debate -- for tough new fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. Those standards may not impact the price of gas at the pump, but they do mean that by 2025, drivers will be getting almost twice as many miles per gallon, on average, than they are now.
Romney has come out in opposition to those new fuel economy standards, and has said that he would even roll back existing standards that would have cars reaching an average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016.
DOMESTIC OIL AND GAS
The question of domestic gas and oil production generally is bit murkier. Obama is fond of noting that oil and natural gas industries have surged under his administration, but he can't really claim full credit for the upswing. For starters, much of the increased oil production has come from the exploitation of previously unreachable stores of shale oil in the Bakken formation underlying Montana and North Dakota. The vast majority of this has been on private and state lands. The natural gas boom -- including in the contentious Marcellus shale region of the Northeast -- was also already well underway before Obama came into office, and here too, much of the development has been on private and state lands that Obama has little influence over.
As EIA administrator Adam Sieminski noted in Congressional testimony in August, "The geology is working in favor of non-federal landowners."
That said, Romney's charge that Obama is somehow choking fossil fuel production in the U.S. is demonstrably false -- and public lands are part of the picture. Roughly 241 million more barrels of oil were produced from public lands in the first three years of Obama's presidency, for example, than were produced during the last three years of the Bush administration. It is true that permitting on federal lands has dropped under Obama's watch, according to the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees oil and gas leasing. But Obama's Department of the Interior rightly points out that oil and gas companies are sitting on tens of millions of leased public acres -- offshore and onshore -- that they simply haven't developed yet.
"These lands and waters belong to the American people, and they expect those energy supplies to be developed in a timely and responsible manner and with a fair return to taxpayers," said Interior Ken Secretary Salazar last May. "We will continue to encourage companies to diligently bring production online quickly and safely on public lands already under lease."
It's worth noting that Romney's energy plan would give over control of the nation's public lands -- national parks, conservation areas, and the like -- to individual states, where they would almost certainly be more rapidly exploited by fossil fuel prospectors. Meanwhile, that energy plan has almost nothing to say about renewable energy. Romney, in fact, has called for the elimination of a wind production tax credit that is seen by most analysts as crucial for the fledgling industry's survival -- even as he continues to support tax breaks for fossil fuel producers.
FRIENDS OF COAL
Finally, the candidates continued to battle over who is a bigger friend to the coal industry, with Obama arguing that Romney himself has described coal as a scourge on human health and Romney countering that the Obama administration's policies, via the Environmental Protection Agency, will kill off the coal industry entirely. It's true that Romney did, as governor of Massachusetts, stage a photo-op in front of a polluting coal plant in his home state back in 2003. "I will not create jobs, or hold jobs, that kill people," he declared at the time. "And that plant, that plant kills people."
But while Obama has made pursuit of "clean coal" a key part of his energy platform, his attempt to appeal to coal country by trotting out that old chestnut of Romney's has earned him rebukes from both the coal industry and environmental groups alike. At the same time, Romney's charges that new EPA pollution standards are killing the coal industry are not quite true either. Coal production dropped with the recession, though it has been gaining ground again.
Still, the fuel source is no longer the dominant player in the country's energy portfolio that it once was -- not because of tougher regulations, but because the country has a glut of cheap natural gas.
Coal industry insiders argue that the regulations will make it impossible for the industry to recover once natural gas prices begin inching upward again -- but it's worth remembering that employment in the coal industry has been dropping off for quite some time, due to increased mechanization and the transition to less manpower-intensive surface mining.
WHITHER CLIMATE CHANGE?
For all of the back and forth over energy policy, one of the biggest issues that many voters wanted to see addressed, climate change, was all but ignored on Tuesday evening -- again.
“It’s preposterous that both candidates spent so much of the precious few minutes dedicated to energy policy tonight fighting over whose vague plan would fry the planet," said Maura Cowley, executive director of the Energy Action Coalition, a coalition of youth-led environmental and social justice groups, in an emailed statement. "Beefing up America’s reliance on oil, gas, and coal and doubling down on fossil fuels endangers our future, and it’s time the candidates recognized that and moved us past yesterday’s energy sources."
For her part, the debate's moderator, CNN's chief political correspondent Candy Crowley, said after the debate that she'd had a question on climate change prepared. As HuffPost's own Michael Calderone noted via Twitter, however, she just ran out of time.