If recent campaign events by both the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates are any indication, energy policy is going to be a major political chip in the race for the White House.
President Obama and Mitt Romney have diametrically opposed views on energy security, efficiency, and innovation. That brings seemingly minute issues such as a wind tax energy credit (crucial to Iowans, coincidentally) to the forefront as well as more philosophical issues such as whether the government should subsidize companies researching and producing renewable energy sources.
But beyond the media blitz surrounding a few select issues in a few select politically important states, a host of other energy issues affecting America's energy security and future remain hidden from public discourse.
Here's a look at just a few prickly, but important, energy issues that few are talking about:
The coal industry. Though it might seem like a business from a bygone era, coal mining and its use to produce energy are still key issues for many states, including some that could go either way come the November election.
That isn't lost upon Mitt Romney, who visited eastern Ohio in a campaign stop last week. Surrounded by some 75 miners, the Republican challenger pledged his support for the industry and dinged the Obama administration's tight regulation of coal plants.
But regulation of coal plants isn't the only thing that's squeezing the industry. Plentiful natural gas reserves have made the United States the largest natural gas producer in the world, according to the Institute for Energy Research, and that's made deposits of the resource in Texas, Alaska, and Wyoming increasingly attractive.
"Neither candidate's position [on the future of the coal industry] has been terribly well defined," says Mike Lynch, president and director of global petroleum service at Strategic Energy & Economic Research. "The big challenge right now is that coal is being clobbered by cheap natural gas not so much by regulation, and neither [Romney] nor Obama has addressed that."
Although coal is relatively cheap, it hasn't been able to compete with the flood of cheap natural gas recently. Coal is also harder to transport, dirtier, and the modern plants needed to produce electricity from coal are costly. A recent report also shows that carbon-dioxide emissions from the energy sector dropped to their lowest levels in 20 years, a feat many experts credit to the increased use of natural gas.
As a result, natural gas has been creeping up on coal's market share of energy production, which is bad news for jobs supported by the coal industry in some swing states.
"Natural gas prices have shocked everyone," Lynch continues. "I don't think either candidate knows what they're going to do about coal mining."
Energy exports. Last December, the Energy Information Administration announced a milestone. The United States become a net exporter of refined petroleum products for the first time since 1949, thanks in part to declining domestic demand and new oil discoveries in North Dakota and Texas.
But as oil production and refining has ramped up in the United States, supply has far oustripped demand in nearby domestic markets, dually dampened over the years by increasingly fuel efficient vehicles and more recently by a sickly economy. As a result, many times distributors often find better sales environments abroad in energy-hungry developing countries in South America and China.
"If exports of fuels refined in America continue as a trend rather than proving to be a one-time anomaly, it will be a positive development for American energy security," Charles Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, said in a statement. "It will also result in more American jobs, more tax revenue for government at all levels, and a faster recovery for our nation's economy."
But oil isn't the only energy source America could export. The nation's vast supplies of coal and natural gas are valuable to growing nations abroad. Still, not everyone is keen on sending energy sources overseas. For starters, transporting coal to ports would involve some not-so-picturesque byproducts and environmental concerns.
"There's some opposition in Oregon to building better ports [equipped to handle the increased volume of exports]," Lynch says. "It's partly NIMBY as in 'We don't want more coal trains going through our backyards' and partly environmental as in 'We don't want China burning more coal.'"
With natural gas exports, some opponents fear shipping more abroad could push up prices here in the States. But, Lynch doesn't see much logic in that.
"Nobody says don't send lobsters to Boston to keep the price low in Maine," he adds.
Nuclear. Nuclear energy provides about 20 percent of the nation's electricity—a bedrock part of the electricity grid, according to experts—but lately, there's been a lot of uncertainty about the future of the industry, especially when it comes to disposing of spent fuel.
With Yucca Mountain in Nevada eliminated as a candidate for a national repository for nuclear waste, nuclear power plants have no long-term option for storing waste. Instead, they now store the waste on site in pools or casks. Efforts are underway to identify a new site, but no time frame has yet been set.
A recent U.S. Court of Appeals decision ruled that a temporary solution is not good enough to meet federal environmental standards. As a result, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has halted issuing new licenses for nuclear power plants, putting at risk the expansion of nuclear power in the United States.
Although the decision doesn't immediately affect any power plants, the speed bump could push back application processing for a year or more.
"What the impact [of the court ruling on potential future plant licenses or renewals for existing licenses] will be is hard to say," says David McIntyre, a spokesman for the NRC. "On new reactors, there are only three on schedule to be completed over the next couple of years and hopefully we'll have resolved this issue by then."
In the meantime, the NRC is focusing on addressing the court's ruling, McIntyre stresses. The agency's response, and hopefully more certainty for the industry, should be coming out soon.
Until then, new nuclear energy reactors—and the future of the industry—are on hold indefinitely.
Meg Handley is a business reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @mmhandey.