What Went Unsaid at Last Night’s Debate

If you want to hear the President say "transit" on the national stage, you have to put the words in his mouth. Image: AP

At last night’s presidential debate in Nassau County, the best opening for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to talk about transportation policy came when undecided voter Phillip Tricolla asked the following question of the President:

QUESTION: Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it’s not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?

Let’s imagine the contours of the straightforward, leveling-with-America response that never came:

OBAMA: Yes, I do agree with Secretary Chu that it is not the job of the Energy Department to lower gas prices, any more than it’s the job of the Commerce Department to lower the price of tin or cotton.

But there’s a lot we can do to become more resilient in the face of oil price shocks. We can give people real transportation choices — invest more in transit, and in making our streets safer – so you aren’t forced to burn a gallon of gas every time you need to pick up some groceries.

My administration has started us down a smarter path with the Sustainable Communities Initiative and the Department of Transportation’s TIGER program. These programs are laying the groundwork for a 21st Century transportation system that makes our communities more productive and efficient while reducing our addiction to oil. If we make these investments, not only will we free ourselves from constantly worrying about prices at the pump, we’ll also stave off the disaster of climate change and prevent the kind of droughts and other extreme weather events that are battering America.

Feel free to add your own embellishments in the comments.

Maybe in an electoral system where the most valuable votes aren’t highly concentrated in the suburbs of swing states, you would see at least some part of that answer aired in a national debate. But here’s what the candidates actually said — apart from a few references to efficiency and the global oil market from Obama, it was basically a contest to see who could convince America that he would open up more land for fossil fuel extraction:

OBAMA: The most important thing we can do is to make sure we control our own energy. So here’s what I’ve done since I’ve been president. We have increased oil production to the highest levels in 16 years.

Natural gas production is the highest it’s been in decades. We have seen increases in coal production and coal employment. But what I’ve also said is we can’t just produce traditional source of energy. We’ve also got to look to the future. That’s why we doubled fuel efficiency standards on cars. That means that in the middle of the next decade, any car you buy, you’re going to end up going twice as far on a gallon of gas. That’s why we doubled clean — clean energy production like wind and solar and biofuels.

And all these things have contributed to us lowering our oil imports to the lowest levels in 16 years. Now, I want to build on that. And that means, yes, we still continue to open up new areas for drilling. We continue to make it a priority for us to go after natural gas. We’ve got potentially 600,000 jobs and 100 years worth of energy right beneath our feet with natural gas.

And we can do it in an environmentally sound way. But we’ve also got to continue to figure out how we have efficiency energy, because ultimately that’s how we’re going to reduce demand and that’s what’s going to keep gas prices lower.

Now, Governor Romney will say he’s got an all-of-the-above plan, but basically his plan is to let the oil companies write the energy policies. So he’s got the oil and gas part, but he doesn’t have the clean energy part. And if we are only thinking about tomorrow or the next day and not thinking about 10 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.

That’s going to help Jeremy get a job. It’s also going to make sure that you’re not paying as much for gas.

CROWLEY: Governor, on the subject of gas prices?

ROMNEY: Well, let’s look at the president’s policies, all right, as opposed to the rhetoric, because we’ve had four years of policies being played out. And the president’s right in terms of the additional oil production, but none of it came on federal land. As a matter of fact, oil production is down 14 percent this year on federal land, and gas production was down 9 percent. Why? Because the president cut in half the number of licenses and permits for drilling on federal lands, and in federal waters.

So where’d the increase come from? Well a lot of it came from the Bakken Range in North Dakota. What was his participation there? The administration brought a criminal action against the people drilling up there for oil, this massive new resource we have. And what was the cost? 20 or 25 birds were killed and brought out a migratory bird act to go after them on a criminal basis.

Look, I want to make sure we use our oil, our coal, our gas, our nuclear, our renewables. I believe very much in our renewable capabilities; ethanol, wind, solar will be an important part of our energy mix.

But what we don’t need is to have the president keeping us from taking advantage of oil, coal and gas. This has not been Mr. Oil, or Mr. Gas, or Mr. Coal. Talk to the people that are working in those industries. I was in coal country. People grabbed my arms and said, “Please save my job.” The head of the EPA said, “You can’t build a coal plant. You’ll virtually — it’s virtually impossible given our regulations.” When the president ran for office, he said if you build a coal plant, you can go ahead, but you’ll go bankrupt. That’s not the right course for America.

Let’s take advantage of the energy resources we have, as well as the energy sources for the future. And if we do that, if we do what I’m planning on doing, which is getting us energy independent, North America energy independence within eight years, you’re going to see manufacturing jobs come back. Because our energy is low cost, that are already beginning to come back because of our abundant energy. I’ll get America and North America energy independent. I’ll do it by more drilling, more permits and licenses.

We’re going to bring that pipeline in from Canada. How in the world the president said no to that pipeline? I will never know.

This is about bringing good jobs back for the middle class of America, and that’s what I’m going to do.

CROWLEY: Mr. President, let me just see if I can move you to the gist of this question, which is, are we looking at the new normal? I can tell you that tomorrow morning, a lot of people in Hempstead will wake up and fill up and they will find that the price of gas is over $4 a gallon.

Is it within the purview of the government to bring those prices down, or are we looking at the new normal?

OBAMA: Candy, there’s no doubt that world demand’s gone up, but our production is going up, and we’re using oil more efficiently. And very little of what Governor Romney just said is true. We’ve opened up public lands. We’re actually drilling more on public lands than in the previous administration and my — the previous president was an oil man.

And natural gas isn’t just appearing magically. We’re encouraging it and working with the industry.

And when I hear Governor Romney say he’s a big coal guy, I mean, keep in mind, when — Governor, when you were governor of Massachusetts, you stood in front of a coal plant and pointed at it and said, “This plant kills,” and took great pride in shutting it down. And now suddenly you’re a big champion of coal.

So what I’ve tried to do is be consistent. With respect to something like coal, we made the largest investment in clean coal technology, to make sure that even as we’re producing more coal, we’re producing it cleaner and smarter. Same thing with oil, same thing with natural gas.

And the proof is our oil imports are down to the lowest levels in 20 years. Oil production is up, natural gas production is up, and, most importantly, we’re also starting to build cars that are more efficient.

And that’s creating jobs. That means those cars can be exported, ’cause that’s the demand around the world, and it also means that it’ll save money in your pocketbook.

OBAMA: That’s the strategy you need, an all-of-the-above strategy, and that’s what we’re going to do in the next four years.

ROMNEY: But that’s not what you’ve done in the last four years. That’s the problem. In the last four years, you cut permits and licenses on federal land and federal waters in half.

OBAMA: Not true, Governor Romney.

ROMNEY: So how much did you cut (inaudible)?

OBAMA: Not true.

ROMNEY: How much did you cut them by, then?

OBAMA: Governor, we have actually produced more oil –

ROMNEY: No, no. How much did you cut licenses and permits on federal land and federal waters?

OBAMA: Governor Romney, here’s what we did. There were a whole bunch of oil companies.

(CROSSTALK)

ROMNEY: No, no, I had a question and the question was how much did you cut them by?

OBAMA: You want me to answer a question –

ROMNEY: How much did you cut them by?

OBAMA: I’m happy to answer the question.

ROMNEY: All right. And it is –

OBAMA: Here’s what happened. You had a whole bunch of oil companies who had leases on public lands that they weren’t using. So what we said was you can’t just sit on this for 10, 20, 30 years, decide when you want to drill, when you want to produce, when it’s most profitable for you. These are public lands. So if you want to drill on public lands, you use it or you lose it.

ROMNEY: OK, (inaudible) –

OBAMA: And so what we did was take away those leases. And we are now reletting them so that we can actually make a profit.

ROMNEY: And production on private — on government land –

OBAMA: Production is up.

ROMNEY: — is down.

OBAMA: No, it isn’t.

ROMNEY: Production on government land of oil is down 14 percent.

OBAMA: Governor –

ROMNEY: And production on gas –

(CROSSTALK)

OBAMA: It’s just not true.

ROMNEY: It’s absolutely true. Look, there’s no question but the people recognize that we have not produced more (inaudible) on federal lands and in federal waters. And coal, coal production is not up; coal jobs are not up.

I was just at a coal facility, where some 1,200 people lost their jobs. The right course for America is to have a true all-of-the-above policy. I don’t think anyone really believes that you’re a person who’s going to be pushing for oil and gas and coal. You’ll get your chance in a moment. I’m still speaking.

OBAMA: Well –

ROMNEY: And the answer is I don’t believe people think that’s the case –

OBAMA: — (inaudible).

ROMNEY: That wasn’t the question.

OBAMA: OK.

ROMNEY: That was a statement. I don’t think the American people believe that. I will fight for oil, coal and natural gas. And the proof, the proof of whether a strategy is working or not is what the price is that you’re paying at the pump. If you’re paying less than you paid a year or two ago, why, then, the strategy is working. But you’re paying more. When the president took office, the price of gasoline here in Nassau County was about $1.86 a gallon. Now, it’s $4.00 a gallon. The price of electricity is up.

If the president’s energy policies are working, you’re going to see the cost of energy come down. I will fight to create more energy in this country, to get America energy secure. And part of that is bringing in a pipeline of oil from Canada, taking advantage of the oil and coal we have here, drilling offshore in Alaska, drilling offshore in Virginia where the people want it. Those things will get us the energy we need.

CROWLEY: Mr. President, could you address, because we did finally get to gas prices here, could you address what the governor said, which is if your energy policy was working, the price of gasoline would not be $4 a gallon here. Is that true?

OBAMA: Well, think about what the governor — think about what the governor just said. He said when I took office, the price of gasoline was $1.80, $1.86. Why is that? Because the economy was on the verge of collapse, because we were about to go through the worst recession since the Great Depression, as a consequence of some of the same policies that Governor Romney’s now promoting.

So, it’s conceivable that Governor Romney could bring down gas prices because with his policies, we might be back in that same mess.

What I want to do is to create an economy that is strong, and at the same time produce energy. And with respect to this pipeline that Governor Romney keeps on talking about, we’ve — we’ve built enough pipeline to wrap around the entire earth once.

So, I’m all for pipelines. I’m all for oil production. What I’m not for is us ignoring the other half of the equation. So, for example, on wind energy, when Governor Romney says “these are imaginary jobs.” When you’ve got thousands of people right now in Iowa, right now in Colorado, who are working, creating wind power with good-paying manufacturing jobs, and the Republican senator in that — in Iowa is all for it, providing tax breaks (ph) to help this work and Governor Romney says I’m opposed. I’d get rid of it.

That’s not an energy strategy for the future. And we need to win that future. And I intend to win it as President of the United States.