CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—There might be few better places to debate the future of U.S. energy policy than at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a campus that has nurtured its share of energy innovations. Representatives of the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney presidential campaigns squared off here last night in the school's cavernous Kresge Hall. The sparks didn't exactly fly, and undecided voters were probably left unswayed, but the debate did sharpen up some of the differences in how an Obama or Romney Administration would steer the world's second largest consumer of energy, passed only recently by China.
Obama's champion was Joseph Aldy, an economist at nearby Harvard University and a former White House adviser on energy and environment. Romney’s man was Oren Cass, a lawyer and domestic policy director for the Romney campaign.
The early part of the debate, moderated by Technology Review editor Jason Pontin, focused on the long-sought American dream of "energy independence." Both sides cling tightly to that dream. Aldy recalled growing up in the mid-1970s, when his family joined the long lines of cars stranded at the gas pumps during the oil crisis. Cass lamented that the United States has actually grown more dependent on foreign oil since then. They both agreed that domestic natural gas will be crucial for weening the United States to energy independence. Their few differences hit familiar Republican vs. Democrat talking points. Aldy talked up the promise of alternative energy sources such as wind and solar, while Cass argued for more oil drilling on U.S. territory, particularly in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska.
Disagreement over the future of the Alaskan refuge provided one of the few moments during the debate when an otherwise polite audience packed with scientists turned rowdy. Aldy made the case for protecting the Arctic refuge from drilling because of its ecological uniqueness. Cass dismissed that idea with an argument that made the crowd groan and grumble. "My daughter will probably never visit ANWR," he said, implying that tourism is the only value of a nature preserve.
At about this point, the moderator looked up from his iPhone and addressed the cameras providing live video feed on the Internet. "People on Twitter are asking, 'Why haven’t they mentioned climate change yet?' I assure you, we’re getting to that."
Cass was blunt on the topic: A Romney Administration, he said, would not put a high priority on reducing U.S. emissions of carbon. He acknowledged that many Americans are passionate about the issue, especially after Obama’s "inspiring" speeches early in his presidency. But since then, Cass pointed out, the Administration has done little to address climate.
In his rebuttal, Aldy did not deny the charge, but he placed the blame squarely on "intransigence" in Congress. Every time the president has introduced legislation for mitigating climate change, Aldy said, "the Republicans have blocked it."
Later, the crowd groaned again when Cass deployed an argument frequently used by climate skeptics: The connection between human activity and climate change "needs more scientific study," he said, echoing a point made in this year’s Republican Party platform.
Who won the debate? Team Obama, at least according to Jocelyn Newhouse, a Ph.D. student at MIT working on large-scale battery technologies. "[Aldy] was the only one who directly answered the questions," she concluded. But Newhouse was happy to hear one thing from the Romney camp. "Both sides said they will continue supporting ARPA-E," the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which funds high-risk, early stage technologies. "I'm completely funded by ARPA-E," she said, "and so are half of our postdocs."
ARPA-E also got lots of love from surrogates for both campaigns during an earlier debate on energy issues held in Washington this past July.