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.