Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have plenty of differences over how they'd promote energy development and protect the environment. But this morning, surrogates for the two campaigns joined hands in supporting the 3-year-old Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), an innovative effort at the U.S. Department of Energy to pump public money into studies of potentially transformational clean energy technologies. Representatives from both campaigns repeatedly lauded ARPA-E's nimble model for funding high-risk basic research during a debate on energy and environmental policy sponsored by Business Roundtable .
"Energy R&D should be done at a very basic level through something like ARPA-E," said Linda Gillespie Stuntz, an energy and environmental attorney who represented the Romney campaign at the Washington, D.C., event. The best role for government, she said, is investing in "very high risk [basic research] that wouldn't be undertaken by other people."
"I agree with Linda on the job that ARPA-E has done," said Obama campaign representative Dan Reicher, the executive director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
The bipartisan praise marks the rising political fortunes of ARPA-E, which was created by Congress in 2007 under Republican President George W. Bush. The agency didn't receive funding until Obama, a Democrat, took office. Since then, it has spent more than $1 billion to try to jump-start promising technologies. The agency has won broad backing from industry for adopting an entrepreneurial approach that calls for quickly killing off projects that don't make progress, and it has fared relatively well in annual budget battles. This year it will spend about $300 million on a wide array of projects, down from a high of $400 million in 2010.
Both campaign representatives praised Arunava Majumdar, who stepped down last month  after serving as the agency's founding director. But the two differed on how much the government should get involved in using public funds to subsidize companies trying to commercialize new energy technologies.
"Government is bad at picking technology winners and losers," Stuntz said, and "subsidizing specific industries doesn't work." The Obama Administration, she charged, has "squandered" millions of dollars "on politically favored technologies [that produced] no jobs," such as the failed Solyndra solar panel company that went bankrupt and defaulted on taxpayer-backed loan guarantees.
Stuntz also noted that laws over the past 2 decades steering tax credits, loan guarantees, and other help to the wind and solar industries, some of which she helped to write and implement, have had mixed results. "When is enough?" she asked, adding that government officials shouldn't be making "bets" with taxpayers' money. But she also said that "there is no bright line" for deciding on where government assistance should end. A Romney administration, she added, would support government-backed loan guarantees for developing new nuclear power plants, a step that the Obama Administration also supports.
Reicher argued that while "government has a role" in developing new energy technologies, "it has to be carefully put together. ... One of the problems with clean energy technologies is that it is hard to get them commercialized," so government assistance is often needed. He noted that, as governor of Massachusetts, Romney had backed state financial assistance for a failed solar power company, similar to the deal the federal government provided Solyndra. He also noted that, when taken as a whole, the government's Congressionally-ordered program to provide financial assistance to energy companies such as Solyndra was performing about as experts had predicted; those predictions included assumptions that some companies would fail.
The two also jousted over the feasibility of reducing carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants by installing technologies that would capture and pump the greenhouse gases into the ground. Stuntz argued that the technology is still too costly for prime time, but Reicher defended the Obama Administration's efforts to launch a large pilot project at a power plant in Texas.
On climate change, Stuntz said Romney "is certainly not a denier, certainly believes there is a role for research." But he would be reluctant for the United States to act unilaterally to mandate reductions in greenhouse gases unless other nations—such as China and India—agreed to similar cuts. Reicher argued that Romney has less interest than Obama does in reaching such global agreements.