Opinion: Columnists

What is ethical energy and why aren't the candidates talking about it?

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When it came to gas prices and energy production, the second presidential debate last Tuesday played like the footnotes to the first one: same points, just more detail. President Obama claimed that oil production is up because of his policies, and Mitt Romney claimed that "the president's right in terms of the additional oil production, but none of it came on federal land."

Then they waged the battle of the facts. Romney said, "Oil production is down 14 percent this year on federal land, and gas production was down 9 percent. Why? Because the president cut in half the number of licenses and permits for drilling on federal lands, and in federal waters."

Obama retorted, "Very little of what Gov. Romney just said is true. We've opened up public lands. We're actually drilling more on public lands than in the previous administration."

What's a confused voter to do? The website of Rob Bradley's Institute for Energy Research is a good guide because of its wealth of independent sources. A 2011 Congressional Research Service report stated that the U.S. increase in oil production came from private and state lands, which comprise about 70 percent of total U.S. oil production.

Obama's Energy Information Administration reports that last year federal oil output was down 13 percent and natural gas down 9 percent. Romney fudged a point. The EIA also noted that federal offshore production was down 77 million barrels, or 17 percent, mostly due to Obama's drilling moratorium after the Gulf of Mexico's Deepwater Horizon disaster.

A little EIA fact opened a big question: The majority of oil production on federal lands -- about 80 percent -- is now located in offshore waters. What happened to all those oil lands in the West?

Interior Department records show that the government leases less than 6 percent of its onshore lands for oil and gas development -- 38.5 million acres in 2011, down from 47.2 million in 2008. Obama slowed the rate of leasing: new acres leased dropped 55 percent from 11.6 million to 5.2 million, and the number of new leases fell by 42 percent from 9,661 in 2008 to 5,568 in 2011.

The administration of George W. Bush approved 20,479 drilling permits in its last two years; Obama has approved only 12,821. Obama has doubled the time it takes to get a drilling permit from 154 days in the Bush years to 307 days in 2011.

When Romney told Obama, "You cut permits and licenses on federal land and federal waters in half," the president replied, "Not true, Gov. Romney." Romney hounded Obama for about five minutes about it. Neither budged.

To get some perspective on this exchange, I called Marc Morano, communications director of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, a positive voice on environment and development issues. Morano told me about his Climate Depot project and its current campaign, "Ethical Energy."

The idea, he told me, is this: Limits on North American drilling, mining, pipelines and energy extraction only increase U.S. reliance on "conflict energy" from places like the Middle East, Venezuela and China, where human rights and environmental protection may be less than desirable.

The concept arose from Canadian political gadfly and best-selling author Ezra Levant. His 2011 book "Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada's Oil Sands" poses the challenging questions: "With the oil sands at our disposal, is it ethically responsible to import our oil from the Sudan, Russia, and Mexico? How should we weigh carbon emissions with human rights violations in Saudi Arabia? And assuming that we can't live without oil, can the development of energy be made more environmentally sustainable?"

Morano's conclusion: "Gov. Romney's all-the-above carbon based energy goals are the moral and ethical choice for the United States."

Examiner Columnist Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

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