Presidential hopefuls avoid energy debate

When Houston invited the US presidential candidates to the world’s energy capital to debate energy issues, it should have expected they would dither.

Energy security and climate change are not only difficult issues to confront but will cost the consumer more. So it has been no surprise to energy executives that candidates are giving little time to energy in their campaigns – with most even rejecting participation in the energy debate – despite the importance of the issue to the next US presidency.

“They are very complex issues,” said Anthony F. Earley Jr, chairman and chief executive of DTE Energy. “To get it into a 30-second interview, even a minute is hard. There are no easy answers.’’

Only the Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Ron Paul have said they will attend the Houston event on Thursday, which, for obvious reasons, is now being described as an energy “summit” instead of a debate. The Greater Houston Partnership, the region’s business association hosting the event, expects that is for the best, as this allows for more focus on energy rather than who scores more points in the debate.

“It’s very hard to talk to an audience as sophisticated as you’re going to find in Houston,’’ said Red Cavaney, president and chief executive of the American Petroleum Institute, the only national trade association representing all aspects of the US oil and natural gas industry.

In addition to Senator Clinton, the speakers have been drawn from some of the world’s biggest oil companies, including John Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil, as well as representatives of the biggest US independent oil companies, Devon and Anadarko, and Buddy Kleemeier, chairman of the independent petroleum producers’ association.

Republican frontrunner John McCain is actually going to be in Houston on Thursday, with an early address at a Rice University town hall but he has yet to agree to attend the energy summit, which is to run into the night. The other leading Democratic contender, Barack Obama, pushed for the debate in Austin against Mrs Clinton last week in what critics suspect was an attempt to get out of the energy summit to play to a friendlier audience.

“We need presidential candidates that have more understanding of energy,’’ said James Rogers, Duke Energy’s chief executive. “I think a national conversation about the issues is very important. Having our presidential candidates talk about this will energise public discussion.’’

The summit hopes to lead the way, with more than 1,000 senior-level business executives, energy experts, public policy leaders and elected officials attending. Presenters will run the gamut from leading energy suppliers to high-tech energy innovators. But if only two candidates show up, it is doubtful the event can be considered a success.

Deryk King, chief executive of Direct Energy, is not sure energy will ever be a top issue in this campaign, regardless of who attends the summit: “Energy is widely regarded as a vote loser – if you say what really needs to be done, you won’t be elected.’’

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