Energy: Fueling the Campaign

Three reporters reflect on their beat’s novel and significant role in the election

With less than one week to go before the most fiercely contested presidential election in recent memory, it’s time to reflect on the ways in which energy fueled this campaign.

In the end, while the economy has clearly emerged as the nation’s utmost concern, it is an issue—the severity of the current financial crisis notwithstanding—that is familiar to any presidential election. But energy, and by extension the energy beat has rarely, if ever, played such a significant role in a presidential campaign. Not only have candidates and journalists approached the subject directly, with talk of mandatory carbon caps and investments in alternative and conventional energy sources, but they have also highlighted its intimate connections to recurring issues like national security and, indeed, the economy.

Yet, over the course of this campaign, the energy story has changed in often surprising ways. CJR talked to three energy and environment beat reporters—two who covered the campaign from Washington and one who was out on the trail—about their beat’s newfound significance, their access to the candidates, and their opinions on what lies ahead. All of them agreed that energy was a different type of story during the primaries, when nearly all the Democratic candidates agreed on broad policy goals and even Republicans declined to make much of the issue. According to Darren Samuelsohn, a senior reporter at Greenwire, a subscription-based online news source that provides detailed coverage of energy and the environment, the general election quickly changed the narrative.

“Once we knew it was Mac and Obama, it was an amazing story,” he said. “It brought us to a place in American history where the two presidential candidates were supporting mandatory caps on carbon dioxide emissions. That meant something significant in terms of the policy, regardless of the politics. And at first it didn’t seem like Obama and McCain were going to attack each other [on energy issues], but then, sure enough, they did.”

At first, it was largely McCain throwing matches. As Dina Cappiello, a national energy and environment correspondent for the Associated Press, pointed out in an interview, the candidate lit a fire during the primary with his calls for a gas tax holiday and a halt to filling the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Slowly but surely, McCain deemphasized clean energy sources like wind and solar in favor of nuclear and fossil fuels, eventually calling to lift the longstanding federal moratorium on offshore oil drilling. This summer’s skyrocketing gasoline prices drove that shift, and now, in the final week, other economic woes have almost entirely superseded energy concerns. And for all the energy-related debate, Cappiello says that the differences between Obama and McCain, especially as they relate to the financial crisis, have been hard for reporters to “tease” out.

“They talk about the green economy, and clean coal, and nuclear, but they talk about them in different ways,” she said. “There are differences, but I don’t think they’re as stark as people initially thought, and neither candidate has addressed what the economic situation does to some of these plans. For Obama, auctioning [carbon permits] may not be best way to go with cap and trade because of the cost. For McCain, how much is he going to have to subsidize these forty-five nuclear reactors he’s called for?”

To be sure, getting access to the candidates in order to ask more probing questions is the eternal challenge. But it is perhaps doubly so for energy and environment reporters, who typically do not go out onto the campaign trail. Juliet Eilperin, who has covered environmental issues for ten years at the The Washington Post, was perhaps the only energy-oriented beat reporter who travelled with the candidates full time. Even then, she only spent about ten percent of her time addressing energy and environment issues; the rest was general campaign reporting. In an interview, Eilperin said she has travelled with all of the Republican candidates, though never with Obama. Originally, she felt that she had ample opportunity to talk with McCain, but those opportunities tapered off after the primaries.

“One of the reasons it was so interesting to cover McCain in the beginning is because he allowed the press such access,” Eilperin said, “And we were able to discuss all of these issues, including environmental and energy issues, with him in detail at the back of his bus. That quickly changed around June when his campaign made a deliberate decision to shut out the press, and from that point forward I haven’t had a substantive conversation with him.”

Samuelsohn echoed some of the same feelings. All in all, he said, Obama has far more energy and environment advisors than McCain, but the McCain camp has been “much better” about returning calls and e-mails. Nonetheless, all of that has changed in the final weeks. “It’s harder to get them on the phone now [or] I get generic responses from them, that aren’t the detail that I want,” Samuelsohn said. “The key is just being persistent and going to a panel discussion where, you know, Jason Grumet or Elgie Holstein [two Obama energy advisors] is speaking. They’re on the record there and they’re doing a lot of those.”

Indeed, there were a number of speeches (from the candidates and their aides), a slew of advertising, and reams of news articles and features (in all media) that focused on energy issues even as the economic crisis unfolded. But the influence of that greater concern was apparent. As the campaign wore on, the candidates became loath to mention cap-and-trade, with its implication of cost, and shifted to talk of investment in renewable energy, with its connotation of growth and “green jobs.” With less than a week remaining, however, reporters have little hope to get much more.

“In the short term they’re going to be hyper-focused on winning the election, and less focused on the environmental and energy issues,” Cappiello said. “They really want to keep the focus on the economy because that’s what people are voting for. You have to remember, depending on how you ask the question, high energy prices are really high up there, but if you make it climate change and global warming, that’s really down the totem pole in terms of what people are concerned about.”

For a time, before the full impact of the economic crisis hit, Sarah Palin’s nomination for the Republican vice presidency renewed interest in energy and environmental coverage. Even last month’s endangered-species listing of the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale became national headlines because of Palin’s opposition. “Usually that would go out over the [Alaska AP] state wire,” Cappiello said. “The positions of these candidates, whether they’re talking about them directly or not, elevate stories on the environmental and energy beat that wouldn’t be so elevated in the absence of the political campaign.”

Yet with Palin, problems of access continued, perhaps to an even greater degree. Eilperin, who spent “a lot” of her time with the governor in recent months, says she’s “never had a chance to ask her a direct question.” Samuelsohn and Cappiello both pointed to Palin’s somewhat ambiguous stance on the causes of global warming, and how, prior to her interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson, many newspapers were relegated to reprinting a single, skeptical quote that Palin had given to Newsmax magazine.

So in some ways, this may be a relatively diminished ending for the presidential energy beat, but the race has also elevated that coverage to unprecedented urgency and prominence. Though the story has waxed and waned throughout the campaign, voters now seem to have a clearer understanding of how integral energy policy will be to the next administration. And the energy beat will surely see an upswing in the election’s immediate aftermath.

“I don’t think [anything new about Obama and McCain] is going to break through the sort of exhaustion of the campaign and the anticipation of the race being over,” Samuelsohn said. “From the energy and environment perspective, I think it’s more, ‘Let’s get ready for what’s to come.’ That’s what I’m going to try pursue here in the final weeks.”

Eilperin concurred: “When this election is over, the immediate task that reporters will face is — give Americans a sense of how the policies may shift after eight years of George Bush in the White House, and what does that mean for their lives as well as for the global economic, environment and energy outlook … I think there’s no question that the economic downturn raises serious concerns over what sort of policies governments across the globe are going to be willing to pursue in light of recent developments.”

All three agreed that the next president’s choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency is glaringly important, given the agency’s Supreme Court mandate to regulate carbon dioxide as an air pollutant. Internationally, it will be important to watch the United Nations-sponsored climate talks in Poland this December, and whether or not the president-elect has a presence there. Whatever happens, it’s likely that energy policy will change, perhaps radically, and that the energy beat’s role in this campaign was no mere guest appearance.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.