5 Energy Questions for President Obama

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- With a focus on jobs and the economy, Americans may see energy as being subservient to these larger aims. Even President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who meet in their first debate tonight, often couch their discussion of energy in terms of job creation and economic strength.

Yes, oil and gas creates jobs and spurs the economy, and the shale boom can help America reach the ever-elusive goal of energy independence. Beyond the usual rhetoric, though, there is the nuance and detail that politicians just loathe to get in to when the timer is running and America is watching. Energy is a complicated business, and sound bites help no one when it comes to energy policy.

With that in mind, here are five questions about energy policy for Obama to answer.

1. Solyndra. Yes, we know you are tired of this one. It's become politicized, and the lessons learned have been lost. With all due respect, I've yet to hear you admit one important lesson learned from the failure of Solyndra that will help the U.S. avoid making similar mistakes in the future. While I don't want to get into the whole "the government shouldn't be in the business of picking winners and losers" rhetoric, your administration has avoided, deflected and redirected the Solyndra failure -- maybe for good "political" reason since it has become such a political lightning rod -- but without ever once saying, "Here is where we went wrong, here is what we learned, and here is how this will make U.S. energy policy better in the future."

Saying "no one could have seen the price drop in solar coming" -- reams of bearish Wall Street data from the past five years makes this excuse a poor one -- or "taking risks is part of progress and everyone knew this was risky" doesn't cut it. If you expect to stay in the alternative energy manufacturing space for the long haul, you have to show a more thorough understanding than that.

Mr. President, Americans love a good self-help book, especially one that begins at a low point and holds out great hope of turning lemons into lemonade for everyone, so tell us, how can we "fail forward" with the help of Solyndra? And then you can be done with it.

2. Manufacturing jobs. Speaking of Solyndra -- yes, we know, "enough already." You probably have some choice words for Republicans chosen from Clint Eastwood's political script over this tired subject. However, the Solyndra political pawn does raise a much more important issue about U.S. manufacturing. I have heard the rumor that the reason why Solyndra got U.S. funding in the first place was because the government feared it would look bad if the company set up shop in China.

It's an irony that leads to the dilemma over the current "lust" for any manufacturing sector jobs versus manufacturing jobs that make sense. Look at First Solar ( FSLR), the largest U.S. solar company: It now can barely make money on its solar panel manufacturing line production, and its strategy is more reliant on its expertise in building large-scale solar projects.

Yes, we know the U.S. government slapped tariffs on Chinese solar panel makers because they don't "fight fair." But in a trade war, it's usually "win one, lose another," so a prolonged trade war in alternative energy manufacturing isn't necessarily sound manufacturing policy.

You've said in defense of the Department of Energy loan guarantees, and solar specifically, that the U.S. won't cede the lead in this sector to anyone. Apple ( AAPL), the most valuable company in the world, and an American one at that, doesn't make one blessed thing in the United States of America. In fact, all of its devices are made by a low-cost manufacturer in Asia.

Mr. President, does having the "lead" in a sector have to mean being the "lead" manufacturer?

3. The Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Once upon a time when Congress gave the executive branch the authority to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, it was intended for supply emergencies like those caused by natural disasters or geopolitical unrest. Yet during your administration, the premise for an SPR release seems to be inching its way to a more liberal philosophy, where to "catch the oil speculators with their pants down" and to keep a lid on prices at the pump so Americans don't revolt and the economic recovery doesn't stumble too much, the SPR becomes more like a petroleum-based form of quantitative easing. After all,, using the conflict in Libya and supply disruption as a premise for an SPR release was tenuous, at best, given the global supply of oil in relation to Libya's production.

I'm not saying that the SPR must be reserved for "emergencies" only. However, while the Federal Reserve has become much more transparent about communicating with the public over its monetary policy, the SPR remains a black box beholden to the unspoken wishes and political maneuverings of the White House. I understand there is a strategic advantage in the world not knowing what's on tap from the SPR. However, that's the same case with the Fed and it still communicates, even if only in dribbles and drops of information.

As the SPR has more constant headline presence -- I'm sort of tired of all the people who know an SPR release is "imminent" before they know it's "off the table" -- and the U.S. continues to increase its domestic oil production, I think Americans deserve at least some form of regular SPR communication, a mechanism for conveying the federal government's current view of the oil markets, economy and likelihood of an SPR release, like we now get from the Federal Reserve. Even if everyone isn't happy with the Fed approach to easing and to communication, it's something.

Mr. President, will you make the SPR process more transparent and how so?

4. Your "war" on "Warren's" coal. Mr. President, I think it's safe to assume that if your secretary fields a call from Berkshire Hathaway ( BRK.B) CEO Warren Buffett, he will be put through. In fact, he's been one of your biggest backers and your go-to capitalist on tax strategy. He is also -- courtesy of his purchase of railroad Burlington Northern -- involved in ambitious plans to ship more and more coal from western U.S. reserves to Asia. In fact, coal analysts often make the case that Buffett's bet on the railroads was a bet on exporting coal to meet Asian demand.

The Republicans like to say you are waging war on the coal industry through your environmental policy, but it's East Coast thermal coal that has really suffered recently, for one thing, and it's been out of favor right now primarily because of low natural gas prices making thermal coal uneconomic for utilities. I don't believe it's EPA regulations that have crushed the coal industry -- at least not yet -- but I have to remind you that global warming knows no national boundaries.

Mr. President, if you are interested in limiting emissions from coal-fired power plants as part of global warming policy, how does allowing Warren Buffett to export coal to Asia help matters?

5. The pampered American

Gasoline prices are a sensitive issue for Americans, a serious issue for consumers, and a real weight on the U.S. economy. However, look at gasoline prices around the world -- outside of state-subsidized oil-rich regimes -- and Americans can't complain.

A strong case can be made that the world economy depends on Americans getting their "cheap" gas -- why do you think the Saudi oil minister steps up with some comforting words about making more supply available, or about there being no rational basis for high oil prices based on supply and demand -- every time there is a bit of panic about rising prices at the pump.

Yet compared to European countries where gas can be as high as $8 a gallon, we've got it good. Your higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars is a logical enough step, and the search for more domestic oil is about improving the U.S. economy, creating jobs and providing the oil and gas industry with a way to maximize monetization of domestic natural resources, but doesn't necessarily imply that gas prices will get much cheaper for the average American.

When will you be ready to tell Americans that on a relative global gasoline price chart, $4 gas represents a "gift"?

To see 5 energy policy questions Mitt Romney should answer, click here .

To join TheStreet's live blog of the presidential debate starting at 8:30 p.m. ET with political reporter Joe Deaux, click here.

-- Written by Eric Rosenbaum from New York.

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