President Obama’s unwavering support for taxpayer-funded “green” energy projects came under fire at Wednesday night’s presidential debate, with Republican Mitt Romney on the attack, accusing the incumbent of picking “losers” in the energy sector while turning his back on American fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal.
The president first raised the issue in the Denver debate, questioning Mr. Romney about the need for $2.8 billion in annual subsidies for oil and gas companies. But Mr. Romney wasted no time in turning the issue against Mr. Obama.
Mr. Romney took specific aim at $90 billion directed at wind, solar and other renewable-energy projects, a portion of the Obama administration’s “green energy” funding initiative that has included some high-profile failures, such as now-bankrupt solar-panel maker Solyndra LLC.
The Republican made the attacks against a backdrop of uncertainty in the energy industry and potential political peril for Mr. Obama. Many in the oil and gas sector have questioned his administration, mostly notably the Environmental Protection Agency, for rules cracking down on drilling. Most in the coal industry and those in coal-producing states say the president harbors outright hostility toward their fuel.
Those attitudes, combined with Mr. Obama’s vocal support for using taxpayer money to fund solar- and wind-power projects, gave Mr. Romney a clear opening.
“In one year, you provided $90 billion in breaks to the green-energy world. Now I like green energy as well, but that’s about 50 years of what oil and gas receives” in federal subsidies, Mr. Romney said at the Denver debate, the first of three between the two candidates.
“You put $90 billion into solar and wind, into Solyndra. You don’t just pick the winners and losers. You pick the losers. This is not the policy you want to have if you want to get America energy-secure,” he said, though his “50 years” calculation appears to be overstated.
Mr. Obama defended such investments as crucial to the country’s long-term energy independence and economic health. He didn’t deny Mr. Romney’s $90 billion attack; in fact, the White House has proudly touted that figure as part of a plan to create thousands of jobs in the renewable-energy sector.
Environmental groups framed Wednesday night’s back-and-forth as another example of the “clear choice” between the two candidates on the issue of renewable energy.
“President Obama wants to invest in energy efficiency and renewable power while protecting our health. Gov. Romney would bet our future on fossil fuels of the past,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund. “This is a choice between responsibility and recklessness, and the choice is ours to make.”
The Sierra Club went further by saying a vote for Mr. Romney is a vote against public health.
“The importance of this election cannot be overstated for the millions of Americans who want a secure climate future, a prosperous clean-energy economy and clean air and water,” Michael Brune, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.
While environmental groups criticized Mr. Romney’s comments, his words heartened those in the fossil-fuels sector. Coal stocks jumped Thursday after the Republican nominee declared “I like coal” during the debate. He also promised that clean coal would be a staple of his administration’s broader energy plan.
Stock prices for companies such as Arch Coal Inc., Alpha Natural Resources Inc. and Consol Energy Inc. rose dramatically Thursday. The Dow Jones index of coal-related stocks shot up by 5 percent.
“These stocks have been volatile, but you can’t discount what a man running for president said about coal. Call it the Romney rally,” Michael Dudas a director at the brokerage firm Sterne Agee specializing in coal, metals and mining, told Reuters.