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.”

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.