10/05/2012 05:48 pm ET Updated Dec 05, 2012

Big Carbon Fights Back

One of the surprising substantive exchanges in Tuesday night's presidential debates was Mitt Romney's strident attack on clean energy and President Obama's support for it.

In one year, you provided $90 billion in breaks to the green energy world. Now, I like green energy as well, but that's about 50 years' worth of what oil and gas receives, and you say Exxon and Mobil -- actually, this $2.8 billion goes largely to small companies, to drilling operators and so forth.

Leaving aside small details -- the real subsidy number of oil and gas far exceeds $2.8 billion, and 2.8 billion into 90 billion is more like 30, not 50 -- Romney basically laid it on the line. We ought to keep subsidizing coal and oil, and reduce our support for clean energy.

But even before he said this, the secondary plot of this year's election seemed to have been set -- whether America's -- and the world's -- energy past is going to strangle its future. (The primary plot, of course, is the differing Obama and Romney narratives about the economy. But themes like conservative efforts at voter suppression, Romney's religion, and even the overall landscape of conservative family issues like gay marriage, have faded going into the stretch.

But the coal industry's major new ad buy attacking clean air standards signals that the battle by fossil fuel interests to use their Supreme Court enabled deep pockets to swing the election is going into higher and higher gear.

Before the latest coal industry ad buy, a new report by the New York Times shows that in the presidential race alone, Big Carbon had already ponied up more than $150 million to pay political spots, more than four times as much as clean energy advocates have mustered. But the presidential race is only the tip of the iceberg.

In Massachusetts Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren took the offensive, tying her opponent, Scott Brown, to the pro-oil policies of his Republican colleague and climate denier, Senator James Inhofe.

But mostly, fossil fuel advocates have been on the offensive, attacking candidates who had supported clean energy initiatives as seeking "big government." Even in Maine, as renewable friendly and fossil free a state as you might imagine, Independent Senate candidate Angus King is being pounded by the Republican Senate campaign committee for his engagement with the wind industry -- it's become the dominant topic in his Senate race, with a by now familiar frame -- well, wind power might be OK but not if has the support of the federal government.

(Of course, nuclear, coal and oil with Washington backing are not only good things - they are the major reason to elect conservatives this year, and the core of Mitt Romney's economic recovery agenda -- but if DC helps a wind project, Angus King is -- well, one of those socialists.)

Maine is not alone. In Virginia, when Democratic candidate Tim Kaine boasted of his record at getting new energy sources located in Virginia, his Republican opponent, George Allen, fired back at Kaine's support for renewables -- and the US Chamber of Commerce joined in. (The League of Conservation Voters went after Allen in the mail.)

It's far from clear that even as well funded as it is, big carbon is getting traction. Polls in presidential battleground Iowa have consistently shown that Mitt Romney advocacy of tax increases in the wind industry were faring poorly with the voters. And a massive, 22,000 voter, eight swing state poll just released showed overwhelming public support for more effective EPA regulation of air pollutants including carbon, and overall intense voter support for Clean Energy -- after a entire year of a relentless NewsCorps/Fox News/Tea Party/coal and oil/Republican assault on the idea of a clean energy future.

The Sierra Club has launched a counter-offensive. Arguing that while Big Oil and the Koch Brothers can buy ads, they cannot buy the truth, the Club has created an interactive Voter Guide so those who remain undecided can make up their own mind -- instead of having ad buys be their only source of information.

To your friends, family, and neighbors, your opinion is worth a whole lot more than any 30-second ad paid for by polluters. That's why the best way to cut through the noise and the clutter of the election season is to simply talk to your friends and family. With our new online Voter Guide, we're giving you a powerful tool to arm them with the facts on some of the key races nationwide.

Check out candidates running for office in your state with the Sierra Club's new Voter Guide, then share it with your friends on Facebook and Twitter.

We won't know how much damage Big Carbon's media blitz has done until Election Day -- clearly it hasn't changed underlying public demand that the U.S. move forward, not backward, into the 21st, not the 20th century, and embrace energy innovation. But has it created enough fog and confusion that voters may not find the candidates who share their values -- as the Club points out, that's up to us.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."