Op-Ed: Romney Myopic About Energy Challenge

Published in the The Providence Journal, August 31, 2012 (electronic) / September 7, 2012 (print)

With Hurricane Isaac flooding Louisiana and Mississippi coastal communities, the Republican Convention was an odd time for Mitt Romney to deride President Obama's concern about rising oceans. "President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of oceans and to heal the planet," he scoffed. "My promise is to help you and your family."

As governor of Massachusetts, Romney authored an ambitious Climate Protection Plan for the state, setting clear targets for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. He acknowledged at the time that the measures outlined in his plan would "help our economy, our quality of life and the quality of our environment." Now he says we Americans shouldn't waste our time worrying about global warming.

Romney's current energy plan calls for "North American energy independence." Key features include mining more coal, fast-tracking mineral leases for oil and gas wells, quick approval of Keystone XL and other cross-border pipelines, and speeding up permits for new nuclear power plants. Climate change is never mentioned, and instead of honing America's competitive edge in the fast-growing global market for renewable energy, he mocks President Obama's "imaginary world where government-subsidized windmills and solar panels could power the economy."

The Republican presidential nominee takes no issue with the billions of dollars in federal revenues lost each year to tax breaks for oil and gas producers. Yet he readily dismisses the estimated 37,000 jobs that the wind industry will lose if Congress lets the federal production tax credit for new wind projects lapse at the end of this year. He claims that wind and solar should compete on their own, without government support. Why shouldn't fossil fuels do the same?

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that we could be drawing 80 percent of our total electricity needs from renewable resources by 2050. The sun and the wind alone could fuel nearly half of our total power needs by mid-century, the lab says, using equipment that is commercially available today.

Energy independence is a worthy aspiration, but we should pursue it in a manner that doesn't ride roughshod over other important values. Coherent governance of federal lands is one of those threatened values. Romney wants to back the federal government out of the mineral leasing business, boasting that states can do a much quicker job of opening up public lands to energy exploitation. He proudly points to South Dakota, where he says permitting for new oil and gas wells takes only 10 days. Do we really want hasty and haphazard environmental review to become the new national standard for mineral extraction on nearly a billion acres of land now governed by federal law?

Romney's "Drill baby drill" ambitions extend beyond our nation's shores. His platform calls for "aggressively" opening up our U.S. ocean waters to oil and gas exploration, starting with federal waters off Virginia and the Carolinas. Is this the same man who, as Massachusetts governor, opposed the Cape Wind offshore wind farm because of its visual impacts when seen from the state's shoreline, five miles from the nearest turbine? Presidential candidate Romney seems to see thousands of giant drilling platforms off our Atlantic and Pacific shores very differently, as proud emblems of American energy prowess. Given the risk of catastrophic spills, proven all too real by the BP Horizon disaster, we need to proceed with caution, not aggression, as we weigh the pros and cons of expanded offshore drilling.

The next four years present an energy opportunity that America can ill-afford to squander. We need a president who will elevate our ambitions, not bury them in policies that deepen our costly reliance on outmoded, non-renewable fuel sources.