10/19/2012 05:53 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2012

Raise the Voltage in the Energy Debate

While energy got some airtime in the second presidential debate, neither candidate hit at the weakest spots in the other's positions. Mitt Romney's energy platform ignores the downsides of fossil fuels and reveals a misunderstanding of how the real world works. President Obama has presided over a national energy strategy that he admits is a "hodgepodge."

This is a topic that deserves far more attention before Nov. 6. After all, we all use energy. We all pay for it. We all breathe its pollution. We all depend on it to be there when we need it. If there is one issue that affects every American of every age, place and income level, it's energy.

Here are the some of the details that didn't come out in the debate, starting with a look at Gov. Romney's policies:

The energy paper the Romney campaign released in August is the presumptive definitive statement of his energy plans. He proposes that the United States achieve energy independence by 2020 by producing more oil, coal and natural gas. What we couldn't produce ourselves, we'd import from Canada and Mexico.

Energy Efficiency: There is no mention of energy efficiency in Romney's plan, even though efficiency is universally regarded as the easiest, cleanest and least expensive way to obtain "new energy." According to the American Council for an Energy Efficiency Economy (ACEEE), we waste 86 percent of the energy we burn in the United States, an unsustainable lack of productivity. Inefficiency means wasted dollars for every energy consumer including our biggest, the federal government. Inefficiency produces pollution, which results in more government regulation. It makes our companies less competitive.

On the other hand, improvements in energy efficiency would be an economic stimulus that keeps on stimulating. Families, schools, businesses and government operations would enjoy the equivalent of new tax-free disposable income that otherwise would have been spent on energy bills.

Energy waste costs jobs. Skip Laitner, an advisor to the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP), an economist and senior fellow at ACEEE, estimates that continued energy inefficiency could cost the U.S. economy as many as 15 million jobs in the next couple of decades -- five times the 3 million jobs Romney says his energy policies would create.

Competitive Energy Markets: The Romney plan says, "instead of distorting the (energy) playing field, the government should be ensuring that it remains level." But the governor wants taxpayers to continue subsidizing the same fossil and nuclear power industries that have been on the public dole for generations while he has opposed government support for renewable energy. He wants to confine the government's role in renewable energy development to basic research, but open more public lands to oil and gas drilling. There goes the level playing field.

Energy Independence: Romney promises that his energy plan would give us "freedom from dependence on foreign energy supplies". Michael Levi, the widely respected analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, has called this a "pipe dream." Even if we were able to eliminate all oil imports and even if we could find a way to divorce our oil prices from the global oil market (doubtful), we live in a global economy. An oil crisis in other nations affects our economy, too. For that reason, the Persian Gulf will remain a security concern.

Climate Change: Romney ignores it. Worse, he wants to reverse the Environmental Protection Agency's regulation of greenhouse gases, currently the best way to mitigate climate change since Congress has failed to produce an effective market mechanism. His energy plan is all about drilling, digging and burning coal, oil and natural gas. In other words, it's all about carbon emissions. On this score, Romney's plan is not only reckless and short sighted, it is a well-documented denial of the world's biggest threat to the environment, international security, the economy and the quality of life for Romney's grandchildren and many generations to come.

What are the shortcomings of President Obama's energy policies? He has made substantial, and in some cases historic, progress in nudging the United States in the direction of a clean energy economy. Last year, the United States regained the world lead in renewable energy investment. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there were more than 3 million jobs related to green goods and services in the U.S. in 2010. More than 460,000 of those jobs were in manufacturing.

But the Obama Administration has failed to produce a coherent roadmap to a clean and competitive energy economy. As a group of business leaders and investors concluded during a conference Oct. 5: "The lack of a long-term predictable federal policy is impeding development of clean energy, stalling investments and hamstringing job creation at critical time in the nation's history."

A national roadmap also would improve coordination between federal and state energy policies, guide public and private research, and give direction to federal programs and budgets.

The president is required by law to send Congress a National Energy Policy Plan every two years, outlining a least-cost strategy to increase energy efficiency and renewable energy, reduce national oil consumption, and cut greenhouse gas emissions. But while many agencies in the federal government have programs and goals related to these requirements, they are scattered and uncoordinated.

So, what should the next president do? The Presidential Climate Action Project has offered the candidates several recommendations including these:

• Convene a presidential commission that includes leading governors and mayors to frame a national clean energy roadmap that organizes the "hodgepodge." It should include specific goals, milestones and performance measures so the president can report progress to the nation every two years. It should define off-ramps for carbon-rich energy and on-ramps for clean energy. It should include provisions to reduce the impact of the transition for workers and regions that now depend on fossil energy production.

• Challenge all sectors of the economy to help cut America's energy consumption 60 percent below current projections by 2050, while raising energy productivity -- the useful work produced by the energy we consume -- by 70 percent. The Administration should create annual milestones toward these goals and report progress by sector each year to the American people. It should create a one-stop shop to simplify public access to federal energy efficiency and renewable energy programs.

• Reform federal fiscal policy to support a clean energy economy. Fiscal policy includes all the ways the federal government attempts to influence the economy, including where it obtains and distributes revenues. Bipartisan interest in tax reform creates an opportunity here. The president should insist that in addition to making taxes fairer and simpler, Congress should "decarbonize" the tax system. The groundwork already is being done by the National Academy of Sciences, which is finishing work on a carbon audit of the tax code.

• Get rid of "all of the above" as an energy strategy. All of America's energy options should be on the table, but not all of them should be selected. We need to weigh the full life-cycle costs of each energy resource and select only those that have the biggest bang for the buck with the least degradation of the environment and waste of natural resources. The formula for judging our energy options should include their social and health costs, their impacts on national security and the economy, their carbon emissions, their net-energy production and their water consumption, among other factors.

Romney is the candidate whose approach to energy security and climate action is farthest removed from these types of reforms. He need not turn his back on his party or on conservative sensibilities to embrace more progressive positions. He need only ally with the rational conservatives and Republicans who acknowledge the need for intelligent energy and climate policies and who know how these policies align with conservative values.

With respect, both candidates need to remember that the president's allegiance must be to the American people rather than to oil and coal companies. It used to be that the objectives of the oil and coal industries were aligned with the national interest. That is no longer the case.

Bill Becker is the executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project.