Mitt Romney's energy plan is likely to endear him to the conservatives he badly needs to win the Republican presidential nomination, but it could hurt him with the moderates he'd need to win next November's election.
Romney calls for greater U.S. production of coal, oil and natural gas. He'd block new pollution regulations and roll back some old ones. He'd also abandon federal subsidies for “green” technologies such as wind and solar power, deriding the Obama administration's “unhealthy 'green' jobs obsession.”
Romney's energy blueprint, part of his “Believe in America” vision for the economy, says the Clean Air Act is outdated and needs an overhaul. His policy says nothing about reducing the risks of climate change; he doesn't accept the National Academy of Sciences' conclusion that emissions from burning coal, oil and gas are what's mainly warming the Earth.
“My view is that we don't know what's causing climate change on this planet,” Romney told supporters at a recent fundraiser, adding that “spending trillions and trillions of dollars” to reduce emissions “is not the right course for us.”
Other GOP candidates hold similar views, but Romney's approach is the most closely watched since it doesn't square with the moderate profile he cut as Massachusetts governor, which remains central to the argument that he's the most electable Republican for 2012 since he appeals to independents.
Romney would amend the Clean Air Act to strip provisions requiring safe pollution levels to be set only on the basis of health and environmental needs. Currently, once a standard is set on those grounds, then the Environmental Protection Agency takes costs into account in determining how polluting companies will comply.
Romney argues that the pollution controls are unaffordable when unemployment is at 9 percent. His plan doesn't assess the costs of pollution on health and the environment.
Romney also would amend the air pollution law so it wouldn't apply to heat-trapping emissions from fossil fuels. He opposes a regulation on mercury and other air toxics, such as lead and arsenic, from power plants. The Clean Air Act has required the regulation since 1990, but the EPA has yet to issue it. The EPA is scheduled to issue a final version in December.
Romney also opposes stricter standards for ozone, the key component in smog, as recommended by the EPA's science advisory board. But then even the Obama administration recently decided against the stronger regulations that EPA had been preparing.
Romney rejects government support for wind and solar energy development.
“To begin with, wind and solar power, two of the most ballyhooed forms of alternative fuel, remain sharply uncompetitive on their own with conventional resources such as oil and natural gas in most applications,” his plan says. “Indeed, at current prices, these technologies make little sense for the consuming public but great sense only for the companies reaping profits from taxpayer subsidies.”
Romney's views on climate and energy are in tune with congressional Republicans. For example, he'd require an up-or-down vote in both houses of Congress on any pollution-control rules that would have a significant impact on the economy. Unless both the House of Representatives and the Senate voted for a proposed rule, it wouldn't take effect.
Republicans in both chambers of Congress back that approach. The House is expected to vote soon on its version, the REINS Act (“Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny.” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has introduced a similar bill in the Senate.
Opponents charge that it would give lobbyists a big say in health and safety regulations, at the expense of government medical and science advisers.
Conservatives have been wary of Romney on other issues, but they seem fine with him on this one.
“Overall, it's a solid plan that would unshackle American energy resources,” said Levi Russell, a spokesman for Americans for Prosperity, a group that supports lower taxes and that sponsored a hot-air balloon tour in 2008 to counter what it called “global warming alarmism.”
However, energy isn't a top-tier issue likely to swing a lot of Republican votes.
“Right now, energy is a subplot,” said Craig Robinson, the editor and founder of The Iowa Republican, a newsletter.
The bigger challenge for any GOP candidate is whether his or her views on energy and the environment are seen as too extreme by the more moderate voters needed to get elected. While energy issues are hardly at the forefront of voter concerns, Romney's views could make it more difficult for him to woo such voters.
“It's less about a specific issue like energy, and more about a pattern. It's not just his specific position, but the sense that he'll say anything to get elected,” said Matt Grossmann, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University. “There's a pattern of moving to where he thinks voters are.”
Overall the risk is slight, however, said Dante Scala, the chairman of the political science department at the University of New Hampshire.
“Moderates are going to put the environment pretty low on their list,” he said.
David Dulio, the chairman of the Oakland University political science department in Michigan, said Democrats needed to be careful about promoting green technology after the Solyndra controversy. The California-based solar power company got more than $500 million in a federal loan guarantee before going bankrupt.
“That could cut into the argument” that the GOP was out of touch on energy issues, Dulio said.
Other GOP candidates offer views similar to Romney's on energy and the environment.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry's energy plan also calls for expanded oil and gas drilling and less environmental regulation. His campaign issued a statement pledging that he'd work with Congress to remove the EPA's authority over greenhouse gases and to “dismantle the EPA in its current state and rebuild a scaled-down agency.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also would expand oil and gas drilling. Gingrich's plans call for replacing the EPA with “an Environmental Solutions Agency that would use incentives and work cooperatively with local government and industry.”
Businessman Herman Cain hasn't released an energy plan yet, but he said last week that he'd take aim at environmental regulations and give the EPA “an attitude adjustment.”
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