President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney wasted little time in clashing over energy issues in the second presidential debate Tuesday, with the Obama administration’s record on oil and natural gas permitting on public lands triggering the most fireworks.

“Oil production is down 14% this year on federal land, and gas production [is] down 9%. Why? Because the president cut in half the number of licenses and permits for drilling on federal lands and in federal waters,” Romney said during the town hall debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY.

“Very little of what Gov. Romney just said is true,” Obama countered. “We’ve opened up public lands. We’re actually drilling more public lands than in the previous administration and…the previous president was an oil man. Natural gas isn’t just appearing magically. We’re encouraging it and working with industry.” Obama was more aggressive than in the first debate between the two men earlier this month (see Daily GPI, Oct. 5).

“But that’s not what you’ve done in the last four years. That’s the problem. In the last four years, you cut permits and licenses on federal land and federal waters in half,” Romney said.

“Not true, Gov. Romney…We have actually produced more oil,” the president said.

Romney pressed further. “No. no. How much did you cut licenses and permits on federal lands and federal waters?”

Following some interruptions back and forth, the president responded. “Here’s what happened. You have a whole bunch of oil companies who 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, decide when you want to drill, when you want to produce, when it’s most profitable for you. These are public lands. So, if you want to drill on public lands, you use it or you lose it.’ What we did was take away those leases. And we are now reletting them so that we can actually make a profit.”

According to ABC News’ fact checker, Romney was correct in asserting that oil and gas drilling permits and licenses (leases) are down, but they are not down by as much he claims. Rather than being cut in half, the Bureau of Land Management reported that permits for federal lands in fiscal year (FY) 2009-2011 dropped by 37%, compared to FY 2006-2008. Leases in FY 2009-2011 dropped by 42%, compared to FY 2006-2008.

Romney had asserted that oil production on public lands fell by 14% in 2011 and gas output had dropped by 9%. However, overall oil production actually rose between 2009 and 2011, so Romney’s statement is “not quite factual,” the ABC fact checker said. The drop in output also was attributed to the six-month moratorium in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico following the Macondo well blowout.

Oil imports are at their lowest level in 16 years, Obama said. “I want to build on that. And that means, yes, we [will]…open up new areas for drilling. We [will] continue to make a priority for us to go after natural gas…But we’ve also got to continue to figure out how we have efficiency energy because ultimately that’s how we’re going to reduce demand.”

Obama called Romney’s energy strategy short-sighted — focused solely on oil and gas. “Gov. Romney will say he’s got an all-of-the-above plan [for energy], but basically his plan is to let the oil companies write the energy policies. So he’s got the oil and gas part, but he doesn’t have the clean energy part.”

Romney countered that under his energy plan, “renewable capability, ethanol, wind, solar will be an important part of our energy mix.” Additionally, the former Massachusetts governor said he would fight to assure that TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone oil pipeline is approved, as well as approve more drilling offshore Alaska and new drilling offshore Virginia. He vowed to get North America energy independent in eight years.

Obama questioned Romney’s pledge to support coal as a viable energy source. “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.”

The ABC News fact checker, however, noted that Obama was incorrect in claiming that Romney “took great pride” in shutting down the coal plant. The plant is still open, though two of its four units have closed.

As the presidential election draws near, more voters say they prefer the energy policies espoused by Obama than Romney, according to the latest University of Texas at Austin energy poll results released Wednesday.

While support from Democrats and Republicans fell along party lines, Obama garnered more support from Libertarian voters (48% vs. 21% for Romney) and independent voters (27% vs. 23% for Romney).

Overall, 37% of respondents say Obama’s platform is best for the country, while 28% favor Romney’s views on energy. More than a third of those surveyed (35%) are not sure whose energy policies they prefer or are undecided.

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