07/31/2012 12:36 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2012

Power Failure: What Voters Should Ask Obama and Romney on Energy

In a gentler era, the word "Keystone" summoned up images of a dozen or so portly and inept cops blundering their way through Max Sennett comedies. Today, Keystone means the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline which, if built, would carry crude oil from Canadian "tar sands" to the Gulf Coast. Sparring about Keystone is what passes for an energy debate this election season. Throw in a little snark about the Obama administration's failed solar energy investment, Solyndra, along with some back-and-forth on abolishing the EPA and that's about it.

No wonder so many voters are confused and frustrated by political campaigns. The daily life of every single American and the health of our entire economy depend on whether we have enough reliable, affordable, and environmentally safe energy. But the political debate on the subject is overwhelmingly evasive, manipulative, piecemeal, and, unless you're a full-fledged energy wonk, nearly impossible to decipher.

That's where "The Question Project" comes in. We have some questions on energy -- basic, fundamental ones -- that we believe people running for office should answer clearly and directly. In this instance, voters deserve to know much more about exactly how President Obama and Governor Romney aim to meet and insure the country's energy needs now and in the future. Candidates for Congress and governor should be answering these questions as well.

So here's what we'd like to know:

  • President Obama and Governor Romney, demand for energy worldwide is expected to jump by a third between now and 2035, mainly due to population growth and booming economies in countries like China, India and the rest of the developing world. There's much more competition -- and rising prices -- for the Earth's limited supplies of petroleum and natural gas. What should the U.S. do to prepare for this?
  • Should we put our efforts into increasing our supply of energy or reducing our use of it?
  • What kind of cars do you envision Americans driving? Are we sticking with oil? If so, the Energy Department predicts oil prices are going to stay volatile for the next 20 years. Or do you want to encourage a shift to alternatives like natural gas or electricity? If so, should the government play a role here, or should it be left to the private sector?
  • President Obama, you had put addressing global warming as one of your major first-term goals, saying "we risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe." But you haven't been very successful in getting Congress to pass legislation aimed at the problem. What would you do differently in a second administration?
  • Governor Romney, you've said that you agree that the Earth is getting hotter, but that you're not fully satisfied that we understand why. You've also said we shouldn't "spend trillions of dollars on something I don't know the answer to." Then what should we do? Does that mean we should accept climate change as inevitable and take steps to prepare for its side effects--crop failures, flooding and the spread of disease, for example?
  • There's really only a short list of fuels we use to produce electricity, and all of them have serious drawbacks. Coal emits the most global warming gases. Natural gas is cleaner, but having ample supplies of it depends on using controversial techniques like fracking. Nuclear power doesn't contribute to global warming at all, but it comes with other safety risks, and we still haven't solved the problem of how and where to store nuclear waste. Alternatives like wind and solar don't have these same risks, but they are considerably more expensive, and right now, they only provide only a sliver of our energy. Where should we place our bets? Should government try to encourage some of these sources, and discourage others? Or should we leave this completely to the private sector?
  • And as a follow-up to that, what do those choices mean for jobs? If we're moving off fossil fuels like coal, then how do we help coal miners transition to new work? If we're going to invest in so-called "green jobs," what has to happen to make that more than a slogan?
If you sense a theme to our questions, you're on the mark. The best projections show that the United States needs both more energy and cleaner energy. We believe the nation needs to make specific plans to insure more diverse and dependable energy sources in the face of growing world demand and pervasive scientific concern about global warming. Changes like these can't be made overnight. It takes decades to develop new sources of energy, and we'll live with decisions we make -- or don't make -- now for a very long time.

This is a massive challenge and leaving it unaddressed could undermine our economy and directly affect our daily lives, and voters need to understand how the candidates think about the nation's choices. Yet, we heard almost nothing about this broader energy challenge in the campaigns. Most candidates and elected officials seem obsessed with near-term specifics, if they're focused on energy issues at all.

But we take a huge risk by putting energy issues on the back burner. If we don't lift up our eyes and look to the future, we're going to be caught up short.