The Fuse

Energy Policy: The Non-Question in the Republican Presidential Debate

by R. Kress | August 10, 2015

It almost seemed to be the forgotten topic of the night. Now that the dust has settled after the first Republican presidential debate, energy policy-watchers are scratching their heads: why was one of the foremost issues of our country largely left without discussion? Nate Silver’s numbers-obsessed blog FiveThirtyEight breaks down the debate based on which topics received two or more questions. The analysis was designed to show that race relations were under-discussed, but the graph also shows that energy issues did not even make the cut for a single, standalone question.

gop questions

Source: FiveThirtyEight

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was the first candidate to broach the topic of energy in the debate. Answering a question about how he would stimulate job growth and the economy, his focus eventually turned to the issue of the Keystone XL Pipeline: “You embrace the energy revolution in our country. This president and Hillary Clinton, who can’t even say she’s for the XL pipeline even after she’s left? Give me a break. Of course we’re for it. We should be for these things to create high sustained economic growth.”

“You embrace the energy revolution in our country. This president and Hillary Clinton, who can’t even say she’s for the XL pipeline even after she’s left? Give me a break. Of course we’re for it. We should be for these things to create high sustained economic growth.”

Bush circled back to the energy issue very briefly in his closing remarks: “Washington is holding us back. How we tax, how we regulate. We’re not embracing the energy revolution in our midst…” However, he did not elaborate further on the topic and did not explain the failure to take full advantage of the current energy production boom.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was the only other candidate to broach the energy issue—again, as a means of economic growth. But it was Walker’s choice of words that has analysts debating what he actually meant: “One of the best things we can do is get the government out of the way, repeal Obamacare, put in—reign in all the out of control regulations, put in place an all of the above energy policy, give people the education, the skills that the need to succeed, and lower the tax rate and reform the tax code. That’s what I’ll do as president, just like I did in Wisconsin.”

If an “all of the above energy policy” sounds familiar, it’s because it has been the standing position of the Obama administration for the past few years. President Obama first coined the term in 2012 and later, in a 2014 report, went on to delineate exactly what an all-of-the-above energy strategy would entail: Support of job creation and economic growth by supporting both fossil and renewable energy generation technologies, and increasing domestic oil production while reducing demand through efficient and alternative fuel vehicles. But the idea of supporting both traditional and emerging energy technologies was one supported by the Obama administration before 2012—he outlined a comprehensive energy security plan that would increase supply while reducing demand in a 2011 speech.

The idea of supporting both traditional and alternative energy technologies was one supported by the Obama administration before 2012—he outlined a comprehensive energy security plan that would increase oil supply while reducing demand in a 2011 speech.

But if these parallel comments seem like Walker in fact is endorsing President Obama’s energy policy, The New Republic’s Rebecca Leber warns that’s not the case, and that an “all of the above energy policy” means two very different things coming from Walker and the President. As Leber puts it in her analysis, when the full context of Walker’s statement on energy is considered, it’s within the framework of reigning in “all the out of control regulations”—many of which, Leber points out, would certainly be restrictions enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), based on Walker’s comments on the federal regulator back in June.

An “all of the above energy policy” means two very different things coming from Walker and the President.

On the issue of the EPA, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee was asked if he’d cut the powers of the International Revenue Service, the Department of Education or the Environmental Protection Agency. His response made it clear that he believes the EPA’s duties should be handled at the state level: “The fact is there are a lot of things happening at the federal level that are absolutely beyond the jurisdiction of the Constitution. This is power that should be shifted back to the states, whether it’s the EPA, there is no role at the federal level for the Department of Education.”

Throughout the entire debate, the word “energy” was only used a total of four times—and one of those references was unrelated to energy policy. Not once did anyone mention oil or gas—and the evening’s only reference to coal came from Ohio Governor John Kasich when he mentioned that his grandfather had been a coal miner.

Perhaps the most explicit reference to energy security came in the earlier debate of the night, for the candidates who did not make the top ten. Among them, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham discussed energy security in the context of his past collaborations on climate change with the Democrats—a move that moderator Bill Hemmer noted had been very unpopular with many Republicans and conservatives. Instead, Graham—who has been vocal about addressing the reality of climate change—delineated a particular focus on energy security that would define his presidency if elected: “When I get on stage with Hillary Clinton, we won’t be debating about the science, we’ll be debating about the solutions. In her world, cap- and-trade would dominate, that we will destroy the economy in the name of helping the environment. In my world, we’ll focus on energy independence and a clean environment. When it comes to fossil fuels, we’re going to find more here and use less. Over time, we’re going to become energy independent. I am tired of sending $300 billion overseas to buy oil from people who hate our guts. The choice between a weak economy and a strong environment is a false choice, that is not the choice I’ll offer America. A healthy environment, a strong economy and energy independent America—that would be the purpose of my presidency, is break the strangle hold that people enjoy on fossil fuels who hate our guts.”

Interestingly, Graham’s comments from the debate have been largely examined for their head-on confrontation of Hillary Clinton—he referenced her at several points during his remarks. But by examining his specific remarks, it would appear that Graham is more laser-focused on the issue of energy and energy security—agree or disagree with his stance—than any other GOP candidate who participated in the official debate.