It's somehow fitting that the only question about energy in the presidential debates so far this year came from a 52-year-old registered Republican and owner of a Long Island strip club. About 20 minutes into this week's town hall debate, Phillip Tricolla asked President Obama: "Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it's not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?"
President Obama did not answer the question. Instead, he launched into a long, obviously rehearsed speech about energy independence, rising U.S. oil production, the virtues of "clean coal" and the distant promise of clean energy. All boilerplate stuff. When it was Romney's turn to respond, he didn't answer the question either – breaking into a tired love song to oil, gas and coal that sounded like it was scripted by Koch Industries (which, given the fact that Charles Koch has promised to raise $400 million to help Romney defeat Obama, it probably was).
Let's do a little thought experiment and imagine for a moment that President Obama wanted to answer Tricolla's question honestly and directly. What might he have said? Here's one possibility:
"You are correct, Phillip. It is not the job of the Secretary of Energy to lower gas prices. The Secretary of Energy's job is to safeguard America's nuclear stockpile, direct energy research, and, as a member of my cabinet, advise me on broader energy issues.
"In fact, the truth is, Phillip, even the President of the United States doesn't have much control over gas prices. Gas prices are, of course, largely dependent on oil prices, and oil is a global commodity. And America is only one player in a very large market. More importantly, we consume about 20 percent of the world's oil, but we produce only about two percent. So even if we doubled production of oil in the U.S., it would only have a small impact on the market – and it would do very little to lower gas prices.
"Nobody likes high gas prices. But the best solution is not to pretend that we can drill our way out of this, but to reduce our consumption. That's one reason why my administration recently issued rules to double the average fuel economy of vehicles by 2025, saving 12 billion barrels of oil in the coming years. But that's just a start. The best way to really cut consumption quickly is by making gasoline more expensive. Does that mean I have a covert agenda to do what I can to keep gas prices high? No. It means that Americans have to get over the idea that we have a God-given right to cheap gas. More importantly, we need to think seriously about the virtues of an economy-wide carbon tax, which would raise the price of oil, coal and gas. This is, I know, a tough argument to make in economic hard times, but the truth is, it would trigger a huge investment in clean energy and be the single best step we could take to solving our dependence on foreign oil and reducing the impact of high gas prices. And this is not some crazy liberal fantasy. Even one of Governor Romney's top economic advisors has advocated a $1 per gallon gas tax.
"I'd like to make one further point, Phillip. I understand why you would ask about gas prices, and why that is important to you. But focusing our discussion about energy on the price of gas is a distraction from the larger issues we face – especially climate change. In fact, talking about gas prices plays right into the hands of Big Oil – which is, of course, why Governor Romney brings it up whenever he can. The governor and his pals in the oil industry want to keep Americans whipped up in a hysteria about gas prices because as long as that is the subject, no politician – including myself – can make broader arguments about long term energy problems, which inevitably involve reducing our consumption of oil.
"The real threat America faces is not high gas prices, but a superheated climate. The science is very clear: climate change is real, it is happening, and it is largely caused by humans. Just consider what we've seen this year: the arctic is melting at unprecedented rate, 2012 is likely to be the warmest year on record and food prices are rising, largely because of the impact of drought on agriculture. The governor may think climate change is a joke, but I assure you, it is not. Just in economic terms, it is a very big deal – one study has found that climate change is already reducing the global GDP by $1.2 trillion, and predicts those costs will double by 2030.
"We can deal with rising gas prices. We can drive more efficient cars, take public transportation, move closer to work. It's not easy, but it's not catastrophic, either. What is catastrophic is rising sea levels, drought, heat waves, food shortages and all the other challenges we face on an overheated planet. The simple fact is, we need to get off fossil fuels as quickly as possible. We need to invest big in clean energy. We need to pass a carbon tax. We need to take the lead on a global agreement to reduce carbon pollution. But most of all, we need to admit the dangers we face by continuing to heat up the planet.
"I know this is not what you want to hear, Phillip. And I know that I bear some responsibility for failing to educate Americans about the risks of climate change. But my silence on this is ending now."
A response like this, of course, would have been political suicide. Or so the conventional wisdom goes. But at least in the case of Phillip Tricolla, the President didn't have much to lose. Tricolla admitted to an AP reporter after the debate that after hearing the President's response to his question, he is going to vote for Romney.