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Obama, Romney at odds on energy

President champions solar, wind, biofuel vs. traditional kinds

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The most confrontational moments of Tuesday night's presidential debate revolved around energy, with Mitt Romney again blasting President Obama for failing to take full advantage of American oil, natural gas and coal.

Both candidates massaged facts and figures to best suit their arguments as the issue of energy security grows more prominent in the race's final weeks.

Mr. Romney charged that the president is lukewarm in his support for American fossil fuels. The president shot back that the former Massachusetts governor seems interested only in oil, gas and coal, and has no plan to foster growth in the wind, solar and other renewable sectors.

With voters in energy-producing battleground states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania paying close attention, and against the backdrop of nearly $4-per-gallon gasoline and coal company layoffs, the candidates took turns hammering each other on a crucial issue that could sway voters.

"I don't think anyone really believes you're a person who is going to be pushing for oil and gas and coal. I will fight for oil, coal and natural gas," Mr. Romney said, speaking directly to the president.

Throughout the debate, Mr. Obama countered those attacks by citing, during his four years in office, the unprecedented spending on green technology, record-high production levels of oil and natural gas and a long-term plan to build wind, solar and biofuels into cornerstones of the nation's energy portfolio.

"We've got to control our own energy," Mr. Obama said. "Not only oil and natural gas, which we've been investing in, but also we've got to make sure we're building the energy sources of the future, not just thinking about next year but 10 years from now, 20 years from now."

After the debate, environmental groups such as the Sierra Club quickly lined up behind Mr. Obama, while business groups such as the American Petroleum Institute poked holes in his numbers.

Perhaps the single tensest moment of the night came when Mr. Romney pressed the president on his frequent claim that American oil and natural gas production have risen dramatically since 2009. That's true, but the increases mainly have come on private lands, not federal property.

But the Republican cherry-picked figures to best illustrate his point. Oil and gas production on federal lands did indeed plunge from 2010 to 2011, as Mr. Romney said, from 726 million barrels to 626 million barrels.

Throughout Mr. Obama's term, however, production has stayed roughly equal to the levels seen during President George W. Bush's time in office. In 2005, for example, 638 million barrels of oil and gas were extracted from federal lands. During the first few years of the Obama administration, production rose sharply, up 11.7 percent from 2008 to 2009 and 15 percent from 2009 to 2010.

Under fire from the coal industry for heavy-handed environmental regulations that have already cost thousands of jobs, Mr. Obama characterized himself as an ally of the fuel. He told a national audience that "coal production" and "coal jobs" have both increased during his administration.

Figures from the federal Energy Information Administration paint a different picture. In 2008, the U.S. produced 1,172 million short tons of coal. In 2011, that number fell by 7 percent to 1,094 million.

The number of mine workers has also fallen, from 86,859 in 2008 to 86,196 last year, and analysts expect that trend to continue as more federal regulations kick in.

Both candidates have drawn praise for the rhetoric, but energy experts won't be impressed until they see action.

"Remember, a plan without action isn't a plan. It's a speech," said business magnate T. Boone Pickens, author of the "Pickens Plan" for energy independence.

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