The US Presidential Candidates and their Green Credentials – A UK Point-of-View

    October 16, 2012

Update 8th November 2012: Since this article was written Mr Obama has won a second term as President of the United States. You can see our thoughts on what impact this may have over the next 4 years at the bottom of the post.

The first all-nighter I ever pulled was to watch the 2000 Presidential Election between George W Bush and Al Gore (the latter becoming an outspoken individual on climate change). In the months leading up to the election, I became obsessed: I was following anything that would allow me to have a better understanding of which way the vote would fall. It all culminated on the first Tuesday of November, the box office event itself, the US Presidential Election.

This particular event was particular fascinating to me as it had a very British feel to it, reflecting our love of cricket – it all ended up a score draw after more than 5 days of play!!

Two further presidential elections have since passed, and we are on the eve of the 2012 Presidential election. Since I have been following it, I get the sense that energy security and the environmental agenda are resonating with more and more of the US electorate.

Since the early 2000’s, oil price have gone from an average $20 to over $100 per barrel, which has led to a 3-fold increase in price at the pumps. At the same time, domestic heating bills in the US have gone through the roof (in much the same way as the UK). The need for the USA to have a steady, uninterrupted supply of fuel and for home owners to be able to access this fuel at a reasonable price and use it more efficiently will resonate as being an important issue with potential voters.

The purpose of this blog (from the other side of the pond) is to examine more closely what each presidential candidate is saying about these policies. This blog isn’t a judgement of their past performance, but more a balanced appraisal what they have delivered so far, which should help us try and predict what they might do over the next 4 years should they get elected.

Some political analysts have said that the environment and energy policy is one of the areas that the candidates can clearly be distinguished in terms of their views, while others have also said there’s not a whisker between the two when it comes to these issues.

Let’s first turn to the incumbent candidate the president of the United States – Barack Obama, and examine the positive and regressive steps he has taken on sustainable energy and the environment.

Mr Obama’s view on the Environment & Clean Energy

You don’t have to go back that far to see how Mr Obama feels about the environment – in fact, you only need to look back at what was said about the subject at the recent Democratic Party National Convention. Mr Obama made clear in his speech that he will support investment in renewables (such as wind & solar PV), because he is concerned about the effects on the environment. In addition, he has also championed other solutions like the ‘greening’ of the US motor industry, which has now seen a record number of hybrid and electric models being rolled off the production line and on the US highways.

Mr Obama’s political record

Ever since Mr Obama has held political office in Capitol Hill as a Senator, he has frequently voted fro pro environmental measures. He has consistently supported trying to get the US to rely less on oil imports, whilst at the same time aimed to promote research and use for environmentally energy to balance the US energy supply. For example, in 2005 he backed the then McCain – Lieberman amendment, which would have established an earlier version of a cap-and-trade system. He had also spoken in favour for other carbon emission amendments and policies that supported use of cleaner techniques for industry and road travel.

As President, Mr Obama was widely credited by international press for trying to pass the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 through Congress, which would have effectively have established a limits to the amounts of carbon dioxide emitted in the US. The bill would also have established carbon permits, which companies could have bought and sold to emit carbon. However, although this bill was passed by the House of Representatives and gave Mr Obama plus points for environmental policy credentials, the bill died soon after in the Senate, where it was met by staunch opposition.

He has to be praised for the way he handled the BP oil disaster off the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. While robustly publicly naming and shaming a British organisation was seen as a bit heavy handed in the UK, in hindsight, it was the correct approach and set a firm tone on how oil companies should operate and conduct themselves when it comes to oil drilling and exploration.

One can argue that Mr Obama was staying true to his election pledge of making the US less reliant on oil when earlier this year he signalled his opposition to the extension of the Keystone Pipeline. In the time he has been President, we have seen a record number of renewable energy projects kick off, such as: seeing a fourfold increase in solar PV farms started or being built; nearly doubling of total energy being produced by biomass and wind, an unprecedented amount of federal funds being directed into energy efficiency and carbon emission projects.

However, Mr Obama hasn’t gone far enough

Recent assessment of history through shows that Mr Obama’s administration has shown a much lower appetite to bring in policies and initiatives on the environment. The reason behind it that the economy and safeguarding American jobs has been the most important issue in the US since the economic downturn in 2007/08, and talking about the environment in this situation has been dismissed as being out of step and out of touch with the American voters.

Countering the ‘anti-oil drilling expansion’ points mentioned above, Mr Obama actually just before the Gulf of Mexico oil spill voted in favour of easing offshore drilling. Also, he was a major critic of the Keystone Pipeline, but has recently disappointed environmentalists by seemingly siding with a more measured building programme. In addition, since Mr Obama has been the President, oil output levels in the US have actually increased and have returned to their pre-2003 levels.

These points, looking from the outside, are contradictory to his rather pro environment stance as given prior to getting elected, and his more recent green rhetoric leading up to the 2012 Presidential campaign.

What do we think Mr Obama will do if he was re-elected?

We see more of the same policies on the environment and clean energy from Mr Obama in his second term as President. We don’t believe we will see a cap-and-trade system introduced any time soon in the US, with the recent Democratic convention highlighting that Mr Obama doesn’t necessarily carry the voices of the whole party when it comes to this issue.

A second term will probably lead with more measured initiatives, such as once again focusing of improving vehicle efficiency and ensuring more cars on the road pass that critical 35.5 miles to the gallon range. Under Mr Obama in his second term, we should also see more nuclear power expansion, with the Fukushima disaster not abating the appetite for this power source in the US any time soon.

We don’t see federal spending on subsidies for solar PV, wind and biofuels stopping any time soon, but with pressure to reduce the federal budget from next year, we may see major cuts for these industries, just as we saw here with the feed-in-tariffs in the UK in 2012.

As mentioned, with oil output in the US increasing under Mr Obama, measures to support shale gas fracking will be central to the long term energy solution, but so will energy capture measures, which Mr Obama wants to see implemented on power stations up and down the country to reduce the carbon emissions and increase the state of welfare for local communities.

Let’s turn to the Republican Party challenger – Mitt Romney– and examine the positive and regressive steps he has taken on sustainable energy and the environment.

Mr Romney’s view on the Environment & Clean Energy

The view of the Presidential candidate Mr Romney (since the Presidential candidate selection process started) is to make the US more self sufficient when it comes to energy use and decreasing the barrel of oil imports. While Mr Romney is also for developing clean energy, he is firmly against what he calls ‘crony capitalism’ to enable this – which is federal intervention and using central government tax dollars to subsidise green programmes. While he was in public office as the governor of Massachusetts, he has accepted that there are man-made forces at work which have caused the warming of the planet. But how does his previous political record stack up on these issues and what does the crystal ball say about what type of green policies he would push through if he were  elected as President?

Mr Romney’s political record on the environment

When Mr Romney was the Governor of Massachusetts, he pushed through policies that were pro environment and pro conservation. While he was in office he made many statements stating that he believed in climate change and was pro interventionist policies that would encourage renewable energies.

An example of his clean energy agenda, as Governor, he appointed a prominent environmental advisor, Douglas Foy, to oversee some of the programmes that were subsequently introduced. Throughout his time as Governor, his state saw the launch of over 70 initiatives including: trying to tax vehicle emissions, cleaning up factories and using tax and spend policies to promote the growth of clean energy generation. He supported ambitious targets such as aiming to generate 15% of the state’s energy from renewables and cutting 25% of Co2 emissions from state agencies by 2020.

In the 2000’s, Mr Romney had clearly been pro active in trying to be on the side of public health and using the state executive powers to put forward policies that are seemingly now more out of character with his current Presidential campaign. In addition, he also wanted to limit offshore drilling, and was at one stage an advocate of a regional cap-and-trade carbon emission mechanism.

What we think Mr Romney would do if he were elected as President

Time magazine’s recent article described Mr Romney’s attitude to energy policy as “drill baby, drill”, which was an assessment of a 21 page energy white paper he produced for this presidential campaign. The paper leads us to believe that a Romney administration would likely relax oil drilling restrictions, cut regulation and approve the completion of the Keystone pipeline which Mr Obama has opposed.

While Mr Romney is still for the development of energy technology and funding research in this area, he is not about to do so at the expense of fossil fuels. While he wants to have a ‘level playing field’ for energy generation, he contradicts himself, as he doesn’t support removing subsidies for already quite profitable oil companies. Our crystal ball says that Mr Romney is not about the halt drilling and shale gas fracking activities, which have recently led to the US once again being a net oil and gas exporter.

Most international pundits are slightly more pessimistic about the US committing itself to a second, more ambitious round of carbon emission targets under his stewardship. Then again, even Mr Obama’s current administration wasn’t too willing to accept a global way forward at last year’s Durban summit.

Concluding points

Looking at the year so far where we have had heat waves, droughts, wildfires and hurricanes, it’s hard not to think that all these extreme weather events have had nothing to do with climate change. Our assessment is that both candidates see the importance of climate change as an issue, with Mr Obama directly addressing this problem, but with Mr Romney acknowledging it as an issue but prioritising energy security through the expansion of fossil fossils.

Whoever becomes the next President of the United States will have an almighty challenge on their hands. The US economy has never hit the highs it saw in 2007 and to an extent; deficit spending has been a major component in keeping the economy there afloat. So whoever is in the White House will have to make some tough decisions about where federal dollars are spent. It is easy in those situations to slash energy policy development budgets and spend less on environmental conservation, but at what ultimate cost?

The UK model is by no means perfect, and in fact our current government should be doing a lot more, but it has maintained the feed in tariffs and invested a chunk of money towards research into renewables, because over the pond there is more of a consensus that if you invest in green fuels now, it will pay off in the long run with cheaper and more secure energy supply.

Update on Green policies debated at the 2nd Presidential Debate:

At the 2nd Presidential debate in New York on the 16th October, Mr Obama and Mr Romney clashed on energy policy. Mr Obama argued for more green energy solutions such as biofuel, wind power and solar PV as well as extending programmes to encourage energy efficiency in generation and transportation. Mr Romney on the other hand argued for more oil drilling and an expansion in coal production, with a view to make North America energy self sufficient. Mr Obama in our view had slightly more convincing arguments in this debate to answer to some of the current problems in energy security and the challenges on the environment.

Update: 8th November 2012, Mr Obama wins a 2nd Term

Mr Obama having won the election, in his victory speech said that he doesn’t want future generations to be blighted by ‘destructive’ effects of global warming. His call to action on the environment in this speech could be taken as signal that during his 2nd term, there will be renewed focus on giving climate change and renewable energy the appropriate focus they deserve!

At a domestic level to signal a renewed focus on the environment and clean energy, we expect continued support (underpinned by tax breaks) for renewable technologies such as wind and biofuels from the President. In addition, we expect Mr Obama to be less willing to support additional subsidies on fossil fuels and cool the expansion of drilling and fracking activities. However this may be tough given that these industries support quite a number of jobs.

However we appreciate that many bold initiatives such as taxing carbon and even resurrecting the 2009 Cap & Trade bill will be very challenging give a divided Congress. On a high note, we hope the next 4 years means more ‘green’ jobs, more clean energy and smarter ways on how energy is consumed in the US.

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