Argument

Playing Dirty

Can Big Oil deliver the election to Mitt Romney?

Read about key swing states here. 

Is Barack Obama sufficiently dirty to win re-election? Not according to presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who says the president is too spic and span.

Calculating that clean energy is passé among Americans more concerned about jobs and their own pocketbooks, Romney is gambling that he can tip swing voters his way by embracing dirtier air and water if the tradeoff is more employment and economic growth.

Romney's gamble is essentially a bet on the demonstrated disruptive potency of shale gas and shale oil, which over the last year or so have shaken up geopolitics from Russia to the Middle East and China. Now, Romney and the GOP leadership hope they will have the same impact on U.S. domestic politics, and sweep the former Massachusetts governor into the White House with a strong Republican majority in Congress.

A flood of new oil and natural gas production in states such as North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas is changing the national and global economies. U.S. oil production is projected to reach 6.3 million barrels a day this year, the highest volume since 1997, the Energy Information Agency reported Tuesday. In a decade or so, U.S. oil supplies could help to shrink OPEC's influence as a global economic force. Meanwhile, a glut of cheap U.S. shale gas has challenged Russia's economic power in Europe and is contributing to a revolution in how the world powers itself.

But Romney and the GOP assert that Obama is slowing the larger potential of the deluge, and is not up to the task of turning it into what they say ought to be a gigantic jobs machine. The president's critics say an unfettered fossil fuels industry could produce 1.4 million new jobs by 2030. They believe that American voters won't be too impressed with Obama's argument that he is leading a balanced energy-and-jobs approach that includes renewable fuels and electric cars.

The GOP's oil-and-jobs campaign -- in April alone, 81 percent of U.S. political ads attacking Obama were on the subject of energy, according to Kantar Media, a firm that tracks political advertising -- is a risk that could backfire. Americans could decide that they prefer clean energy after all. Or, as half a dozen election analysts and political science professors told me, energy -- even if it seems crucial at this moment in time -- may not be a central election issue by November.

Yet if the election is as close as the polls suggest, the energy ads could prove a pivotal factor. "Advertising is generally not decisive. Advertising matters at the margins. ... But ask Al Gore if the margin matters," said Ken Goldstein, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group at Kantar Media. "This is looking like an election where the margin may matter."

Romney is hardly the first major U.S. presidential candidate to embrace Big Oil. The politics of clean go back to Lady Bird Johnson's war on litter and Richard Nixon's embrace of environmentalism. But both presidents Bush came from the oil industry, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the last GOP vice presidential nominee, gleefully led chants of "Drill, baby, drill" in 2008. Yet President George W. Bush also famously declared that "America is addicted to oil" in his 2006 State of the Union address, and initiated most of the energy programs for which Obama is currently under fire. And Palin's drumbeat in the end seemed to fall flat.

The Republican efforts appear to go beyond any modern campaign in their brash embrace of what is dirty, and their scorn of what is not. And the times seem to favor them. In 2009, the GOP, backed by heavy industry lobbying, knocked back environmentalists on their heels by crushing global warming legislation. Other previously central issues -- Afghanistan, Iraq, health care -- are still debated in the campaign, but not as centrally nor as viscerally as energy, said Frank Maisano, an energy and political analyst at Bracewell & Giuliani, a Houston-based law firm.

Obama advisors have said rightly that energy is only one component of a much broader American and global economy, but the GOP appears to have at least partially successfully injected the oil and gas boom as a defining feature of the economic discourse. In a Sunday op-ed in the New York Times entitled "America's New Energy Reality," industry consultant Daniel Yergin remarked that while Obama's 2010 State of the Union address focused on clean-energy jobs, the president pivoted this year to talk as much about oil and natural gas. "His announcement that ‘American oil production is the highest it has been in eight years' turned out to be an applause line," Yergin noted.

Romney grants that Obama is not precisely Mr. Clean -- while the president has championed clean energy technologies, he has also stewarded over the greatest buildup in U.S. fossil fuel production since the 1990s. But Romney insists he will be dirtier: He vows to open more land to oil and gas drilling, approve the import of more Canadian oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries, and allow more coal mining. As for Obama, Romney recently told a Colorado coal community, he isn't dirty enough to deserve a second presidential term. The president has "made it harder to get coal out of the ground; he's made it harder to get natural gas out of the ground; he's made it harder to get oil out of the ground," Romney said.

The approach aligns with a campaign by the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. oil industry's main lobbying arm, called "Vote4Energy." The API campaign, which consists of big political events and advertisements, targets 15 or so mostly swing states, those that both Obama and Romney will most need to muster the 270 electoral votes required to win.

Marty Durbin, executive vice president at API, told me that the Vote4energy campaign is deliberately not backing any specific candidate or party, but attempting to centrally fix the subject of greater fossil-fuel drilling in voters' minds. "We're using this to highlight the importance of energy to the broader policy, that with the right energy policies we can have job creation, economic growth, energy security, government revenue. If voters have these realities in their mind when they go to the ballot box, that's what is going to move us forward in having a more rational national energy policy," he said. Already, he said, "the energy conversation is no longer just production and energy security. This is about job creation on a state-by-state level."

Notwithstanding Durbin's disclaimer, the API campaign seems to weave seamlessly into the GOP strategy. And Maisano told me that he sees grist for GOP success in the targeted states. "Energy plays a huge role in those states, and I see it as a huge problem for Obama," he said. "It's going to be hard for him to win these states that he has to win, like North Carolina, like Florida and Michigan and Ohio and Missouri and Wisconsin. Energy undercuts him in those economies."

Some analysts think the dirty campaign will ultimately fizzle. "The Romney campaign has positioned itself to beat the job-creation drum better than the Obama campaign has," said Kyle Saunders, a professor at Colorado State University, but an improvement in job numbers could undermine the GOP narrative. In addition, said John Sides, a professor at George Washington University, Obama's incorporation of fossil fuels in his energy policy may muddle the picture for voters. "I'm not sure that there is a lot of daylight between Obama and Romney," Sides told me.

Yet my own impression is that the Republican strategy may be working, at least partly and at least for now. Given the stakes, Obama and the main environmental lobby seem more lethargic than they might be. When I sought comment for this story, API responded almost immediately with an offer to speak with Durbin. Not so much the Sierra Club, the principal bulwark of U.S. environmentalists. A spokeswoman missed a couple of emails sent over a couple of days, then by phone said she would try to scare up someone to speak. Finally, I finally received a message: "I haven't been able to track down our political team today." In an election that may be decided on the margins, advantage: fossil fuels.

Whitney Curtis/GettyImages

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