Ryan re-energizes coverage

VP candidate brings fossil fuels, alternatives back into focus

Paul Ryan’s selection as the GOP’s candidate for vice president has renewed debate about, and coverage of, the stark differences between Republican and Democratic energy policies.

No sooner had Mitt Romney announced his choice of running mate than reporters dove in with background stories about Ryan’s energy platform and what his “Path to Prosperity” budget plan has to say about fossil fuels and renewable power sources. Unsurprisingly, his “record elates the right, and deflates greens,” Politico’s Andrew Restuccia reported:

The Wisconsin Republican has been an outspoken critic of President Barack Obama’s clean energy agenda, offering a fiscal plan earlier this year that neatly mirrors the GOP’s policy priorities. The plan would expand oil and gas drilling, limit the reach of the EPA and kill the Energy Department’s clean energy loan program.

But we already knew that, so it was nice to see some outlets dig deeper and add context. One of the most revealing and widely cited examples of useful sleuthing was a front-page article in the Boston Globe on Tuesday. According to reporters Bryan Bender and Brian MacQuarrie:

In 2009, as Rep. Paul D. Ryan was railing against President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package as a “wasteful spending spree,” he wrote at least four letters to Obama’s secretary of energy asking that millions of dollars from the program be granted to a pair of Wisconsin conservation groups, according to documents obtained by the Globe.

In a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, according to the Globe, Ryan went as far as praising a Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corporation project for allowing “residents and businesses in the partner cities to reduce their energy costs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and stimulate the local economy by creating new jobs.”

A related article by Bloomberg’s Jim Efstathiou Jr., “Ryan energy views seen easing conservative worries,” pointed out that Romney also has a double standard when it comes to energy loans. Although Romney has criticized the $535 million federal loan to Solyndra, a solar panel manufacturer in California that went belly-up last year, as governor of Massachusetts in 2003 “he touted the state’s support for clean-energy companies such as Konarka Technologies Inc., a solar-technology company.” A day after Romney visited Solyndra in May, calling a symbol of Obama’s economic failures, Konarka collapsed as well, despite $6.5 million in state aid.

Valuable background articles like these quickly gave way to superficial stump-speech coverage, however, as the Obama and Romney campaigns spent Tuesday taking potshots at the other side’s energy platforms. Ryan was in Colorado, where told numerous outlets, from the Los Angeles Times to The Washington Post, quoted him saying, “President Obama has done all that he can to make it harder for us to use our own energy,” while doing nothing to factcheck the claim.

In fact, US oil production has been climbing for the last three years; crude oil imports have fallen to their lowest level since 1999; in 2011, the US was a net exporter of refined petroleum products for the first time since 1949; and last November, the Department of the Interior announced a five-year leasing program that makes more than 75 percent of estimated offshore oil and gas resources available for exploration and development.

In terms of the immediate future, though, the most meaningful debate taking place on the campaign trail revolves around the fate of a production tax credit for wind power, which is due to expire in December. Obama was in Iowa on Tuesday—where the wind industry supports 7,000 jobs and enjoys bipartisan support—criticizing Romney and Ryan for their opposition to renewing the credit. His remarks were timed to coincide with the release of report from the Department of Energy, which said the wind sector grew substantially in 2011, ClimateWire reported.

Obama touted the production tax credit as vitally important to creating new jobs, and Environment News Service flagged a couple of analyses that have supported that assertion, including one that said expiration of the credit would kill 37,000 jobs within a year. The best coverage has come out of the Hawkeye State itself, however, where the Des Moines Register has been following the debate closely. According to an article published Wednesday:

Not all Iowa wind jobs would disappear without the tax credit. Wind turbine manufacturers have branched out in preparation, and those who operate existing wind turbines in Iowa would keep their jobs. But Iowa’s federal lawmakers, Democratic and Republican, worry that Iowa could see some layoffs if the tax credit dies.

Whatever the case may be, the complexity of the debates surrounding domestic oil and gas production and the production tax credit for wind power defy stump-speech sound bites. Reporters should strive to include as much context as they can find and to press the candidates for details rather than blanket accusations.

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