Obama and Romney, Oil and Science
Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The second debate between President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was perhaps most notable for its macho choreography — with the two men circling, jabbing and interrupting — and the intense Benghazi moment.
The need for reinvestment in science and basic research made an appearance, albeit fleetingly, in the context of the exodus of jobs to China. I’ll get to that in a second, but first, a reality check on another big focal point — fights over policies related to high gasoline and oil prices. [2:31 p.m. | Update | As Will Oremus wrote today, the debate came close to touching on global warming, as well. See an excerpt below]
It’s not surprising that the first substantive energy exchange between the two candidates dealt with gas prices, given — as a national poll by the University of Texas just found — that this is by far the most pressing energy issue on voters’ minds (to the consternation of climate hawks).
Here’s a relevant snapshot from the university’s survey, posted by Sheril Kirshenbaum, director of the polling project:
@Revkin Don’t forget about what Americans want to hear specifically about energy – the topic a president can’t manage http://t.co/r4zQvdVr
Hidden behind the flurry of conflicting claims and spins on who’s drilling, or would drill, more or less was the reality — known mainly to energy economists and analysts, it seems — that presidents essentially have no power to affect gas prices. Tom Zeller, Jr., formerly of The Times and now at Huffington Post, has written an excellent piece, “Energy Facts, And A Few Fibs, On Display At Presidential Debate,” laying out the forces that do have an impact, and pointing to a valuable 2011 study from the Federal Trade Commission, Gasoline Price Changes and the Petroleum Industry: An Update, which I just read and encourage you to explore.
This morning, Michael Levi, who analyzes energy and the environment for the Council on Foreign Relations, answered my question about the limits of presidential influence in a way that says Obama got it right by insisting that cutting demand through policies aimed at energy efficiency and the next generation of energy technologies had to be part of a long-term American energy (and oil) agenda. Here’s Levi:
It’s tricky. U.S. oil production is a bigger part of the gas price picture than it was a few years ago. But it’s still just one part of the puzzle — ultimately, if others restrain production in the face of higher US output, the impact on gas prices can be small. In the long run, the most powerful way to reduce U.S. exposure to expensive oil by using less of it.
He has a relevant post earlier this week titled “The Global Oil Market Isn’t Going Away.” I tweeted on another useful primer on gasoline basics during the debate:
11 Factors That Determine Gas Prices (White House, #kxl not on list): http://t.co/IF0RdLis via @themoneygame
Science made its brief appearance in Obama’s answer to a question was about jobs flowing to China. Obama acknowledged job loss, but noted that the source of American economic growth remained innovation, and innovation requires investment in basic science and research and development.
Romney rebutted this with an odd chant:
Government does not create jobs. Government does not create jobs.
And of course he’s right (outside of the context of temporary direct stimulus projects). But government is able, and often uniquely able, to invest in the basic sciences and large-scale research and development projects that create the menu of insights and technologies that can be turned by the private sector into TomToms and more efficient turbine blades.
Via Twitter, I praised Obama’s acknowledgment of a federal role in creating the underpinnings for innovation, but noted that, particularly in basic inquiry on areas of science relevant to energy, we’ve been in a decades-long slumber party no matter who’s controlled the White House or Congress:
Obama pushed RD in #debate2012, but check out America’s Bipartisan Slumber Party on Energy Research: http://t.co/2MabW6eT
2:31 p.m. | Update | On the Future Tense blog, Will Oremus described how the moderator, Candy Crowley, mentioned that a climate question almost got asked. Here’s a snippet from his post and a link to the rest:
…Crowley pressed them twice to address whether it was in fact the government’s job to lower gas prices. The correct answer: It isn’t, and it shouldn’t be. The United States already has some of the cheapest gas of any developed country. And for anyone who believes that even cheaper oil is the route to economic prosperity, just look at the countries with the lowest gas prices in the world: Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Iran. Cheap oil isn’t a long-term energy policy. It’s something that autocrats throw around to keep their grip on restive populations.
For what it’s worth, Crowley did say after the debate that an audience member had wanted to ask a climate change question. “Climate change, I had that question,” she said. “All you climate change people. We just, you know, again, we knew that the economy was still the main thing.” [Please read the rest; Oremus ends with a potent* kicker.]
[* I liked the main point of Oremus's conclusion -- that climate change can have economic impacts -- but a reader helpfully noted the lack of scientific support for the line asserting that warming has already been linked to cyclones.. and tsunamis.]