If it were just left to policy wonks, President Obama and Mitt Romney would actually be much closer on energy issues than it might seem.
That was the impression left by a Business Roundtable-sponsored energy-policy debate on Wednesday, in which campaign surrogates Dan Reicher and Linda Stuntz were expected to face off on a number of energy topics. But in the absence of campaign rhetoric, the two former Energy Department officials found a great deal more common ground than Obama and Romney likely will in the debates leading up to the November election.
Stuntz and Reicher — representing Romney and Obama, respectively — nearly repeated one another on issues such as international climate-change negotiations, fracking regulations, and the importance of nuclear energy.
"A lot of what I heard from Dan, I really like and I agree with," Stuntz said in her concluding remarks.
The main distinction — which also is prevalent in a number of other campaign issues — is how each side sees the role of government, Reicher told National Journal after the debate.
"That's really what's at stake here: Do you think that the private sector has got it right on energy technology, or does it need to be redirected in the way that we think is politically correct?" Stuntz said during the debate. "And I think this election's going to be about that."
Part of the reason for the lack of talking points — and consequently, fireworks — during the debate was the background of the two surrogates, who were both chosen by their respective campaigns.
Stuntz was deputy secretary of Energy under President George H.W. Bush and is a founding partner of Stuntz, Davis & Staffier. She is on the boards of Raytheon and Royal Dutch Shell.
Reicher, representing the Obama campaign, also spent some time at the Energy Department as assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy under President Clinton. Reicher, currently a Stanford Law School professor, also headed the climate-change and energy initiatives at Google.
The issues that separated Stuntz and Reicher during the debate were few and far between. For the most part, as Reicher pointed out, Romney's campaign stance on energy is largely "on the back of oil drilling."
"I think there's a number of areas where Governor Romney's bet is essentially to be able to drill our way out of this," Reicher said.
And Stuntz didn't disagree. In fact, she highlighted that Romney would accelerate permitting for offshore and onshore drilling and expand leasing on federal lands and off the coast of Virginia and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
But Reicher said that ANWR is where the Obama administration draws a line in the sand on Alaska drilling.
When it came to the hydraulic fracturing process, known as fracking, used to extract America's vast shale-gas resources, Stuntz and Reicher didn't vary much. Both touted the technology and resource as a big opportunity for the United States, but noted that there certainly need to be standards and best practices in place.
"This is a technological issue that we can manage. Are there needs to put standards, best practices? Yes," Stuntz said.
"I think putting the right standards in place, getting the federal government better organized "¦ I think we can move forward," echoed Reicher.
While Stuntz questioned whether the federal government should be as involved as states are in overseeing fracking operations, Reicher countered that the EPA could work in coordination with states in implementing federal rules.
The two surrogates also seemed to find common ground on climate change, a topic that has been virtually absent from both Romney and Obama's campaign rhetoric.
While both Stuntz and Reicher acknowledged the importance of addressing global warming, both also highlighted that U.S. action alone will not make a big dent — a common GOP talking point.
"This is not a problem that can be addressed by the U.S. alone," argued Stuntz, saying that while "we are effectively decarbonizing our economy "¦ globally, the picture is quite different."
"The notion that the U.S. can act unilaterally on carbon emissions and make a material difference in global greenhouse gases is not realistic," she said. "It will only hamstring our economy."
Stuntz said that research and development is essentially the only way that the U.S. should move forward in efforts to combat greenhouse-gas emissions.
Reicher didn't exactly disagree, arguing, "It is important that this country be working with other countries on how to, in a very practical way, deploy clean-energy technology."
Reicher also agreed that efforts to deal with the issue of climate change on a global level are necessary, but noted the need for methods beyond pushing green-energy technologies. He also argued in favor of the Obama administration's not-so-popular greenhouse-gas emissions regulations and for a binding international treaty.
One of the technologies Reicher mentioned was "clean coal" technology, meant to capture carbon emissions from dirty coal-burning power plants. The so-called carbon-capture and sequestration technology is not yet commercially viable and Stuntz called it "wishful thinking" on the part of the Obama administration.
"It is cost-prohibitive without some sort of a carbon fee," she said.
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