Image: Stewart Cohen

Back in the fall, during the second presidential debate, President Obama and Mitt Romney got into a somewhat spirited exchange on the topic of energy. It began by Romney saying that “oil production is down 14 percent this year on federal land, and gas production is down nine percent. Why? Because the President cut in half the number of licenses and permits for drilling on federal lands and in federal waters.”

I was waiting for Obama to stand up and say, “You damn right I cut ’em in half, Governor! Because we need a new direction!” But he didn’t. Instead, Obama began to brag about how much more drilling his administration was allowing. “We’re opening up public lands,” he boasted. “We’re actually drilling more on public lands than the previous administration!”

Romney then sauntered over toward The President, got in his face a bit, and again accused him of “cutting permits and licenses on federal lands and federal waters.”
“Not true,” said Obama
Is so, said Romney.
Liar, liar pants on fire, said the Prez.
I sat there watching in awe. Were these two men, in late 2012, actually arguing about who could drill on public lands faster? Who could do more of it? That’s their energy policy?

What this particular low-point in the presidential debates made clear was not that one party was superior to the other in caring for our public lands, but that neither had a clue about the true, non-extraction value of these resources, especially to anglers and hunters and lovers of the outdoors in general.

Granted, Chicago and Boston aren’t exactly public-lands strongholds where wilderness areas abound. But with Colorado (26 million acres of public land; ranked 9th nationally at 40 percent) and Nevada (57 million acres, ranked 1st nationally at 80 percent) being two of the nine swing states, you’d think some Birks-wearin’ backpacker-type staffer might have spoken up and asked, “Um… have we thought about playing this whole drilling-the-shit-out-of-public-lands issue a little differently?”

Not that east-of-the-Mississippi presidential candidates are the only ones stuck in the ’70s when it comes to energy policy. One week after the election, Ken Buck, a Colorado-based district attorney and 2010 Senatorial candidate, wrote a guest editorial in the Denver Post, bemoaning the outcome of the election in general and derisively asking, “should we have environmental regulations that favor one type of energy production?” The answer to Buck’s question is no. We should have regulations that favor all types of energy production that are cleaner, safer, and less harmful to public lands than current types of energy production. And here’s your next soundbite, Buck: The jobs will last because the resource will last.

Almost everyone, presidential candidates included, say that they’re in favor of alternative energy. But there’s always some sort of caveat attached: “I’m in favor of wind energy, but we need all of that oil, too!” Or “I’m a big believer in solar power, but we have all of this natural gas so we might as well use it!” Meanwhile, proposals continue to pile up that would allow drilling for gas in pristine Rocky Mountain headwaters; allow the risky transportation of oil along hundreds of miles of steelhead rivers and immaculate coastline; and allow dumping of toxic, mined-out mountaintops into West Virginia waterways.

Nobody expects America to wean itself off of oil overnight. But the clock is ticking and it’s picking up speed. With another new year upon us, wouldn’t an attempt to reduce drilling on public lands—rather than increase it—seem a good place to start?

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