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.
Mr. Obama in recent months has voiced support for more domestic oil and natural-gas drilling as he seeks to blunt criticisms that he is opposed to those fuels. One of his latest campaign commercials mentions "clean coal."
But Mr. Romney and running mate Paul Ryan have pointed out that the president has not promoted new drilling or gotten the Keystone XL pipeline up and running despite the thousands of jobs it is projected to create.
Coal, gas and oil companies and related groups have spent tens of millions of dollars in political-season advertising promoting their fuels, while other commercials have attacked Mr. Obama for favoring alternative sources such as wind and solar over traditional fossil fuels.
They also cite, as Mr. Romney did during the debate, the dramatic drop in oil and gas production on federal lands since Mr. Obama took office in 2009. Overall domestic production of both fuels is up, a fact that Mr. Obama and other administration officials frequently reference.
The increase, however, has come almost entirely on private lands, where the federal government has little ability to curtail drilling. Mr. Romney criticized the president for slowing oil and gas extraction on federal lands and promised to expedite it if he is elected.
"On government land, your administration has cut the number of permits and licenses in half. If I'm president, I'll double them," he said during the debate.
Those attacks haven't diminished Mr. Obama's support for federally funded renewable-energy projects; in fact, economic-stimulus package documents on the White House website say the $90 billion spent in the plan "laySpades the foundation for the clean-energy economy of the future."
After being criticized for his lack of combativeness during the debate, Mr. Obama turned up the intensity at a campaign event in Denver on Thursday, blasting Mr. Romney's energy plan and strongly defending his policy on green investments.
"We've got a better plan" than Republicans, Mr. Obama said. "We keep investing in wind and solar and clean coal, and the good jobs that come with them; where farmers and scientists harness new biofuels to power our cars and our trucks; where construction workers are retrofitting homes and factories so they waste less energy, and we can develop a 100-year supply of natural gas."
The administration's initial investment in renewable energy — the $90 billion referenced by Mr. Romney — breaks down into several categories: $29 billion for energy-efficiency improvements to homes and businesses; $21 billion for "renewable generation," such as the installation of wind turbines and solar panels; $10 billion for modernization of electric meters and the nation's electric grid; $6 billion for advanced car batteries; and $3 billion for carbon capture technology necessary for clean coal, among others.
Mr. Romney contrasted those investments in wind and solar — which, despite years of government help, produce a small fraction of the nation's electricity — with the president's drive to cut all subsidies for oil and gas companies. But Mr. Romney's contention that the $90 billion equates to 50 years' worth of support for oil and gas isn't entirely accurate.
The sector receives about $2.8 billion per year; over 50 years, that would amount to $140 billion.
Several studies have shown that the industry has received far more than that. A report by DBL Investors, an investment and venture-capital company, examined nearly a century of federal support for oil and gas and found that from 1918 to 2009, the sector received an average yearly subsidy of $4.86 billion, though the figure often differs from study to study.
Mr. Romney made another questionable claim, contending that half of companies receiving a piece of that $90 billion have gone out of business. While several — including the well-chronicled Solyndra, which went bankrupt after receiving a federal loan of more than $500 million — have gone belly-up, the failure rate is nowhere close to the half Mr. Romney claimed.
But many do remain in dire financial straits and are unlikely to survive without substantial government support, said Dan Kish of the American Energy Alliance.
"Half of them haven't failed, but the number that look as though they're going to fail in light of what the market is doing and what their sales numbers are — it's going to be a huge loss," he said. "The general view is that wind and solar are great, until [the public] finds out what it costs and what the problems are. They haven't heard that."
© Copyright 2016 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.