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Heated energy exchange only part of larger policy split

One of the most heated exchanges in Tuesday night’s debate came when President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney clashed over oil and gas leases on federal land. 

The men interrupted each other over how many energy leases the Obama administration had issued, with the president saying oil companies “had leases on public lands that they weren't using. So what we said was, you can't just sit on this for 10, 20, 30 years… if you want to drill on public lands, you use it or you lose it… And so what we did was take away those leases, and we are now re-letting them so that we can actually make a profit.”

In what may have been one of the most contentious debates of the modern era, President Barack Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney squared off on gas production, the security situation in Benghazi and workplace inequalities among other issues. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

Yet that spark-generating skirmish was only one aspect of a deeper discord between the rival candidates on how America can develop more energy and what effect increased energy supplies will have.

The two candidates didn’t get around to grappling with difficult policy questions that have developed due to the increased production of oil and gas within the United States in the past four years:

  • Should the new supplies of domestically produced oil and natural gas be used only in the United States, helping drive down domestic prices?
  • Should U.S. natural gas producers be allowed to export more of the gas they’re producing, as they’ve petitioned the Obama administration to be allowed to do? (The administration is awaiting a macroeconomic study on liquefied natural gas exports which has been percolating inside the Energy Department.)
  • Should the Environmental Protection Agency crack down on the technique known as “fracking,” which is used to produce natural gas, because it might jeopardize groundwater supplies?
  • And, as journalist David Owen explains in his book The Conundrum, making vehicles more fuel efficient – which Obama took credit for in the debate -- in effect makes each mile driven cheaper. Will this tend to lead to Americans driving more miles? "The problem with efficiency gains is that we inevitably reinvest them in additional consumption," Owen writes.

In response to a question from an undecided voter, the president defends his record and tries to make his case for re-election.

The increased supply of natural gas and oil has fundamentally altered the energy picture in the United States – a fact Romney alluded to Tuesday night a few minutes after the men had their first energy clash: “By virtue of new technology (we can) actually get all the energy we need in North America without having to go to the Arabs or the Venezuelans or anyone else."

The Financial Times reported last week that for the first time in decades energy companies are poised to export substantial amounts of crude oil: at the port of Corpus Christi, Texas, crude is being loaded for shipment for the first time since the 1940s, the paper reported.

Related: Battery firm bankruptcy comes after bipartisan funding under both Bush and Obama

Going unmentioned in Tuesday’s debate was the failed 2010 cap and trade greenhouse gas emission bill, which was a centerpiece of Obama’s agenda in his first two years as president. That bill would have, at least in the short run, increased energy prices.

So – with the focus in Tuesday’s debate on lowering energy prices and not on reducing emissions – it might have been politically fortunate for Obama that the Senate didn’t pass the House-passed greenhouse gas bill in 2010.

Tuesday night’s energy clash began when a questioner in the audience told Obama that his energy secretary, Steven Chu, “has now been on record three times stating it's not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?”

Obama didn’t give a direct answer, instead responding that “the most important thing we can do is to make sure we control our own energy.”

He claimed that “we” – and he didn’t specify whether by “we” he meant American energy companies or the federal government – “increased oil production to the highest levels in 16 years.”

He added that “natural gas production is the highest it's been in decades.” That’s true, in part to environmentally contentious “fracking” in Pennsylvania and other states.

According to an analysis by the Van Ness Feldman law firm, which specializes in energy regulatory law, Romney’s position is to ensure EPA regulations do not discourage “fracking,” while Obama administration policy has been to require all companies drilling for gas on public lands to disclose chemicals used during the fracking process.

As for lower gasoline prices, Obama contended that energy efficiency is “how we're going to reduce demand and that's what's going to keep gas prices lower.”

Obama also used the chance to mock Romney for saying that “when I took office, the price of gasoline was $1.80, $1.86. Why is that? Because the economy was on the verge of collapse, because we were about to go through the worst recession since the Great Depression, as a consequence of some of the same policies that Governor Romney's now promoting.”

But apart from the point-scoring and rebuttals, there’s a difference between the two men.

As energy consultant Geoffrey Styles has written, Romney’s energy plan “focuses mainly on oil, gas, coal and nuclear energy, which together meet 91 percent of current U.S. primary energy demand.” Obama’s rhetorical and thematic emphasis has consistently been on alternative-energy sources such as wind and solar, which still -- and for the near future -- will meet only a small fraction of U.S. energy demand. His endorsement Tuesday of “an all-of-the-above strategy… that's what we're going to do in the next four years” is not where he started out rhetorically in 2009.

Surprisingly, Romney passed up the chance to mention that battery manufacturer A123 Systems, which got nearly $250 million in grant money under Obama’s 2009 stimulus program, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Tuesday.

Obama also used the energy clash to score points against Romney for his apparent inconsistency on the question of coal, saying that “When you were governor of Massachusetts, you stood in front of a coal plant and pointed at it and said, this plant kills, and took great pride in shutting it down. And now suddenly you're a big champion of coal.”

Obama and his “opposition research” team were correct: as the Boston Herald reported in 2003, as governor Romney announced a crackdown on PG & E's Salem Harbor Station power plant.

"I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people," Romney said in a speech outside the plant. "And that plant - that plant kills people."

The mayor of Salem, Mass., said at the time that the electric utility threatened to close the plant – costing jobs and $6.5 million in property taxes - if Romney didn’t give the plant more time to meet new pollution rules.

"If the choice is between dirty power plants or protecting the health of the people of Massachusetts, there is no choice in my mind. I will always come down on the side of public health," Romney said at the time.