Who Won the Debate Last Night: On Energy Policy, Romney Loses, Obama is Thinking Ahead

Quite a lot was said at the top of Tuesday night's rancorous debate regarding energy policy, though for the most part, the candidates seemed to say the same thing. 

Both Obama and Romney described their policies as “all of the above.” A Romney administration would want to drill just about everything immediately, if not sooner, while drastically putting the brakes on the Environmental Protection Agency (that was the rub behind new coal plants being impossible). On the other hand, President Obama seemed to pay special focus on renewable energy projects. But when they moved on, I think we were all about as surprised with their energy plans as their tax plans.

Of course, the candidates' simplistic statements, like everything else said in the domestic policy part of the debate, is designed to tell the voters that both candidates want to create jobs as quickly as a Peterbilt goes through diesel. But Obama's focus on renewables shows, in my opinion, that Gov. Romney and Pres. Obama have vastly different concepts of what should drive an energy policy, especially as it pertains to the timeline. Obama's desire to speed along development of cheap, reliable, abundant renewable energy generation (including natural gas, provided the environmental risks of hydrofracking can be avoided) is critical to avoiding a harsh economic backlash of suddenly-declining reserves of oil in the coming years.

“But wait,” you may be thinking, “don't we have plenty of oil?” You would be right to think so, but it is true that fossil fuels will run out, the only question is when. Sadly, estimating how long the earth has until oil runs out is extremely difficult, but most estimates indicate that some time within the next 50 to 75 years, declining supplies will turn petroleum into a luxury item, assuming current usage patterns and barring international political snafus. Now, 50 to 75 years certainly is a long time, especially through the lens of a four-year presidential term, but imagine the worse-case scenario (50 years) – prices would begin to increase substantially within the next twenty or thirty years, eventually spiraling upwards out of control. The severity of declining oil reserves worldwide is exactly why we really should be preparing for that eventuality before it's a problem.

It seems to me that the Obama administration, to its credit, has taken this proactive mindset, refusing to give into oil-company pressure that the declining-supply model (known as “peak oil”) is a shaky theory we need not worry about. The administration's support of the budding wind and solar industries, occasional foibles and all, helps us to be prepared as soon as possible for any significant reduction of our fossil fuel supplies for electric generation. The same can be said for the continued support for the development of batteries which will be capacious enough and cheap enough to truly power the country in periods of low wind or sunlight, rendering pointless the arguments of many coal-industry billboards in my home state of Pennsylvania.

“Ah,” you may be thinking, “what about cars? Gov. Romney did say you can't run them off windmills.” That's true. Wind-powered cars would be silly as they'd be sail-y. But these same batteries used for powering you home could provide the cruising range that the current Nissan Leaf lacks. And in the meantime, I'm guessing that with new fuel-economy regulations, hybrids and cars with smaller turbo-charged engines will become much more popular, perhaps easing the price increases while we develop non-combusting replacements

It's always hard to predict the long-term trends of any industry, but this unpredictability is why we need to be doing all we can right now to pursue a partial or complete replacement for fossil fuels. A paradigm shift in energy is no doubt going to be difficult and ugly; there will be winners and losers. But one thing is certain: fossil fuels will run out, sooner or later, and if we don't have a real, practical, feasible solution ready before then, this world will change in ways we probably don't want to think about. Mitt Romney's policies advocate kicking that can down the road so as to protect jobs that aren't close to being threatened by the fledgling renewable energy industry – a solution for a non-existent problem, but a potential source of votes in fossil-fuel-rich states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. At least Pres. Obama's statements seem to look beyond the voting booths.