None of the Above

Does either candidate really believe in an "all of the above" energy policy?

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Illustration by James Yang for TIME

The Obama and Romney campaigns agree that energy policy is one of the clearest contrasts between the candidates. Which is odd, because the two campaigns also agree that the U.S. needs an “all of the above” energy policy.

There is an explanation for this paradox that won’t shock anyone: both campaigns are being disingenuous. Romney, whose 21-page energy white paper reads like a love letter to fossil fuels, had the gall to blame Obama for recent wind-industry layoffs, which were caused by uncertainty over tax credits that Romney wants to kill. Obama, whose Administration has poured money into clean energy while cracking down on dirty coal plants, has shown similar chutzpah, airing an ad in coal-rich Ohio depicting Romney as a Massachusetts coal basher.

Romney doesn’t bash coal anymore. And his plan for North American energy independence isn’t really all of the above; it’s drill, baby, drill. It doesn’t even mention reducing demand — the cheapest, cleanest and fastest way to reduce dependence. He opposes Obama’s strict fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, which could save billions of barrels of oil. Romney wants more drilling, less regulation and immediate approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. The idea is that exploiting technological advances in fracking and drilling could unleash an oil and gas boom, keeping energy prices low and creating millions of jobs.

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But U.S. oil and gas production is already booming. Despite the 2010 BP oil-spill disaster, the oil-rig count is the highest it’s been since the 1980s. And petroleum companies are still sitting on 26 million acres in idle offshore leases, plus 7,000 unused permits for drilling on federal land. The shale-gas revolution is already under way, despite the Obama Administration’s alleged hostility.

Meanwhile, fossil fuels are broiling the planet, and Romney’s plans would accelerate that. He has become an outspoken critic of federal incentives for renewables, deriding them as “picking winners and losers.” Romney says he merely wants to restore a level playing field for all energy resources, but he opposes efforts to level the playing field by making coal and petroleum — “real energy,” he once called them — pay for their pollution through carbon pricing or even clean-air enforcement. And while he’s fine with cradle-to-grave support for nuclear plants, he opposes Obama’s call to eliminate tax breaks for spectacularly profitable oil companies. Romney’s plan does promise to slash red tape around renewables, but Obama has already done that; his Administration approved the first 17 solar projects on federal land.

In fact, while every President since Nixon has talked about reducing energy dependence, Obama is the first to oversee a real reduction, back to 1995 levels. His stimulus poured $90 billion into clean energy, launching a quiet green revolution. Wind generation doubled in his first term, and solar-power installations have increased sixfold. Over Republican opposition, Obama helped finance a new battery industry for electric vehicles and a smarter electric grid. And he has tackled demand, not only with efficiency upgrades for vehicles and appliances but also with aggressive retrofits of government buildings, low-income homes and factories. Romney has dismissed Obama’s green push as crony capitalism, but nobody has produced evidence of any shenanigans.

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Obama isn’t running as a green President, though. Instead he brags about record production of fossil fuels — a rooster taking credit for the sunrise. And he no longer talks much about global warming, even though that’s the best reason to invest in clean energy. If the goal is merely reducing dependence on imports, we can just use more coal and gas. They’re abundant. And right now they’re cheap.

The unpalatable truth is that “all of the above” is a silly energy policy. Corn ethanol is worse for the planet than gasoline. Nuclear energy costs too much. Natural gas is eco-friendlier than coal but not as clean as wind or sunshine. And it won’t need presidential assistance to keep expanding.

The larger point is that energy, like elections, is about more than slogans. It’s about choices — and some choices are better than others.