Obama, Romney split on energy policy; Upper Midwest has stake on both sides of argument
Republican Mitt Romney makes it clear that he is a friend of coal and oil as he campaigns for president.
In his re-election effort, Democratic President Barack Obama often promotes new energy sources such as renewable fuels (including ethanol and biodiesel) and electric producers like wind and solar.
In one of the few rural issues they discuss while campaigning, Obama and Romney show a definite split on energy policy. It boils down to traditional fossil fuels vs. new energy sources and light regulation vs. tight regulation.
Professor David Flynn of the University of North Dakota summarized the candidates' differences: "One (Romney) is saying, 'I really want to get government out of business;' the other (Obama) is saying, 'I want to create rules that allow things to go in an improved fashion.'"
Flynn, chairman of UND's Economics Department, said most of the campaign energy talk has been about how to deliver energy to the country's urban centers rather than the impact on rural areas where it is produced.
"They will provide a broad-based energy plan that is short on specifics but clearly has consequences on rural areas," Flynn said.
The Upper Midwest has stakes on both sides of the argument.
A heavy agriculture presence in the area provides plenty of support for renewable fuels made from crops. On the other hand, North Dakota is home to coal mines and just became the second most productive oil-drilling state.
Both campaigns say their candidates support the federal renewable fuel standard, which encourages the use of fuels such as corn-based ethanol. Obama is far more vocal about it, but in their first debate, Romney also said he supports renewable fuel sources.
Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, said rural America benefits from renewable energy policies such as those Obama backs.
"We are actually producing record amounts of homegrown energy in this country," said Peterson, a Democrat.
Obama calls for "getting rid of the subsidies for big oil," Peterson said, which would help farm-grown alternatives. Eliminating oil tax breaks and providing renewable fuels tax relief allows farm-based fuel to compete with oil, he said.
Obama often touts the number of jobs that renewable fuels can produce in rural America.
"We are increasing the level of ethanol that can be blended into gasoline, and the new renewable fuel standard helped boost biodiesel production to nearly 1 billion gallons in 2011, supporting 39,000 jobs," Obama said in response to a Farm Bureau questionnaire.
Former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer, also an ex-U.S. agriculture secretary, said Obama's pro-alternative energy stance is designed to drive up costs of other fuels.
Alternatives are not yet financially or technologically viable, said Schafer, a Republican who sits on the board of Continental Resources, a company at the forefront of North Dakota's current oil boom.
Schafer said a Romney administration would promote fossil fuel.
"If you see Romney get elected, I think you are going to see a push back to maintaining the present," Schafer said, including continuing clean coal and renewable support.
Schafer said Obama thinks the country does not need the oil industry.
"I don't think there is any question that if President Obama is re-elected, it is going to hurt the industry," Schafer said. "If the president gets re-elected, we are going to see pressure on the North Dakota economy."
The candidates' differences in the campaign may not foretell their results in the White House.
As professor Doug Tiffany of the University of Minnesota said: "What the candidates are saying and what they have the power to change are two different things."
If Congress includes at least one chamber of the president's opposition party, energy policy will not change overnight.
Tiffany, who specializes in economics and energy, said that the dominant factor in energy today is falling natural gas prices, not political policy.
"What they say is designed to get votes," Tiffany said. "I think what will happen is that businesses and power utilities will continue their march toward more natural gas, and that is a matter of price."
While Obama emphasizes renewables, observers have seen his stance change and his website proclaims he supports "all of the above." That is a phrase Republicans used four years ago to support developing all energy sources.
"I think the president has moved his stance closer to all of the above, but if you look at the track record of the past several years, it certainly is not an all-of-the-above stance," Flynn said.
Expanding production in places like western North Dakota's Oil Patch likely would be easier under Romney, who prefers less federal regulation on drilling, mining and farming. Obama backs more environmental rules.
Romney supports hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, in which water and chemicals are used to force oil out of the ground. It is used in North Dakota and sand needed for the process is found in eastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin.
The president's fracking position was spelled out in his 2012 State of the Union speech, in which he said he would require companies that drill on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use.
The Christian Science Monitor reports that the fracking debate apparently has not slowed drilling, since oil production is at an eight-year high.
Obama centers his energy policy on tax credits that support development of sources such as ethanol (mostly made from corn), biodiesel (usually coming from soybeans), wind power and solar power.
Instead of Obama's tax credits, Romney favors speeding up government permitting of wind farms, as well as other energy production efforts.
Wind power is growing in the Midwest, with Iowa and Minnesota annually among the top wind-power producing states.
In the presidential debate about domestic issues, Romney hit Obama on giving $90 million in tax breaks to wind and solar power projects. Many of them failed, the Republican said, telling Obama, "You pick losers."
"This is not the kind of policy you want to have if you want to get America energy-secure," Romney added.
It appears Romney generally opposes those credits, but in a campaign where specifics are rare, Tiffany said, "we don't have a clear understanding of that."
Romney has said that on the day he is sworn in, he will approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would transport oil from Canada to Texas.
The White House halted the pipeline plan Jan. 18, saying more time was needed to study environmental and other concerns. Obama approved the southern half of the pipeline three months later, with studies continuing on the rest of the route.
10 presidential tickets on Minnesota ballots
ST. PAUL - Here is a list of presidential and vice presidential candidates to be in front of Minnesota voters Nov. 6:
Republican: Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan
Democrat: Barack Obama and Joe Biden
Libertarian: Gary Johnson and Jim Gray
Socialist Workers Party: James Harris and Maura Deluca
Constitution Party: Virgil Goode and Jim Clymer
Constitutional Party: Dean Morstad and Josh Franke-Hyland
Green Party: Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala
Grassroots Party: Jim Carlson and George McMahon
Socialism and Liberation: Peta Lindsay and Yari Osorio
Justice Party: Ross C. "Rocky" Anderson and Luis J. Rodriguez