What about climate change?

The candidates fight over who loves coal more in a completely ludicrous energy debate

By Andrew Leonard

Published October 17, 2012 3:15PM (EDT)

For environmentalists, Tuesday's night presidential debate posed a dual conundrum: What's harder to understand? That the candidates could discuss the rise or fall of oil production on public lands during Obama's first term without mentioning the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, or that the entire fight to determine who supported fossil production more fervently could take place without a single reference to climate change?

By and large, environmentalists already know who they are going to vote for (hint: it's not the guy crisscrossing the country attacking the EPA), but they can be excused for spending the energy portion of the debate looking for a coal slurry pond to drown themselves in. On energy policy, the debate demonstrated only one thing clearly: The U.S. is headed in the wrong direction.

The fact-checkers have already reduced Mitt Romney's attack on Obama for supposedly reducing the amount of oil produced from "public lands" into rubble. For the first three years of Obama's term, oil production on public lands grew, overall. (Over the last four years of George W. Bush's term in office, in contrast, production on public lands fell by 16.8 percent.) Yes, offshore oil production did drop sharply in 2011, but there's an obvious reason for that: the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster -- which included a six-month moratorium on new exploration and drilling.

I am sure I am not alone in being baffled at Obama's reluctance to bring up one of the worst oil spills in American history in the context of a discussion of oil production on federal land, but that's a minor quibble when compared to the invisibility of climate change. It's hard to think of a better illustration of how screwed up the debate over energy policy is in this country than the sight of two candidates for president fighting with each other over who supports the coal industry with more gusto. For environmentalists, the worst moment of the debate had to be when President Obama took obvious pleasure in pointing out that Romney had once stood in front of a coal-fired power plant and said "this plant kills." Ouch. (Actually, maybe it's Obama who would spend the next four years attacking the EPA.)

The explanation for this festival of disingenuousness on both sides isn't all that hard to find. The question that prompted the discussion of energy issues had to do with whether government could or should do anything about high gas prices. The political reality is unavoidable: Americans care more about high gas prices than they do about the threat of climate-change-related disasters or giant oil slicks in the Gulf. So in any discussion of energy policy, both Romney and Obama will do their best to avoid any hint of support for policies that could result in higher gas prices.

Meaningful legislation that would address climate change -- a carbon tax, a cap-and-trade system -- would, in fact, penalize the production of fossil fuels in the long run. That's the whole point. If we want to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, we have to make tradeoffs.

But when running for president, tradeoffs are a big no-no. For both Obama and Romney, the expressed goal is to have more of everything, without paying any real price.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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