Energy Facts, And A Few Fibs, On Display At Presidential Debate

A question from a voter at Tuesday evening's town hall debate -- regarding whether it was within the purview of the government to control the price of gas -- sent President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney into a war of words over energy policy, and neither actually answered the question.

Instead, both candidates introduced some of the same energy talking points that have animated the campaign for months, though as presented, Romney's charges held the least amount of water. He blamed the Obama administration, for example, for the fact that gas prices have doubled over the last four years, and he hammered the president for stalling oil and gas production by curtailing leases on federal land, and for introducing policies that will run the coal industry into the ground. Romney also argued that he is a supporter of renewable energy -- just not to the exclusion of fossil fuels.

Obama, meanwhile, largely touted his record on both fossil fuels and renewable energy investments, though he sometimes took credit for things that aren't entirely in his control. Let's run down some of the assertions.


The answer to the voter's original question, of course, is that, generally speaking, administration policy has minimal impact on gas prices. Oil is a global commodity, and its price is set by, and subject to the whims of, a global energy market over which an American president has little control. Increasing domestic drilling -- a key part of the Romney energy plan introduced in August -- won't significantly alter the price at the pump. As the Congressional Budget Office noted in May, more U.S. oil on the world market would almost certainly be offset by adjustments in production by other countries, all but erasing any price impacts.

A 2011 report from the Federal Trade Commission provides a useful primer on the factors that tend to influence gas price fluctuations.

Romney's charge that gas prices have doubled over the last four years is roughly true, and it has been a popular talking point since the Republican primaries. However, gas prices plummeted with the collapse of the economy in late 2008, just as Obama was taking office, and the doubling has really only restored prices -- though not quite fully -- to where they were prior to the recession, or more to the point, prior to Obama. As data from the Energy Information Administration shows, retail gas prices were also climbing steadily under the eight years of the Bush administration, hitting a high in the summer of 2008. Bush can't really be blamed for that increase any more than Obama.


The current president can very much take credit -- and he did so at this evening's debate -- for tough new fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. Those standards may not impact the price of gas at the pump, but they do mean that by 2025, drivers will be getting almost twice as many miles per gallon, on average, than they are now.

Romney has come out in opposition to those new fuel economy standards, and has said that he would even roll back existing standards that would have cars reaching an average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016.



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