A woman holds a sign at a Romney rally in Ohio. Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney broke the campaign's long silence onenergy policy on Tuesday night in a combative exchange with each claiming to be the stronger supporter of American oil and coal.
Environmental campaigners have been pressing debate moderators to include questions on energy and climate change – hoping to put Obama on the spot to defend his clean energy agenda.
Even the oil man T Boone Pickens tweeted a few minutes before the debate that he was anxious for Obama and Romney to have a substantive clash on energy, after the topic was passed over in their first encounter and in the vice-presidential debate.
But Obama, while re-affirming clean energy was central to his economic recovery plans, gave his most spirited answer on oil and coal, repeatedly interrupting Romney to tout his support for fossil fuels.
Obama pushed back hard at Romney's suggestion that his administration had cut back on offshore oil exploration and oil and gas drilling on public lands – and repeatedly interrupted the Republican contender when he tried to protest.
Obama also took Romney on for accusing the administration of crushing the coal industry. "Not true, governor Romney," the president said repeatedly.
"We've opened up public lands, we're actually drilling more on public lands than the previous president and he was an oil man," Obama said. "When I hear Governor Romney says he's a big coal guy, and governor, keep in mind when you were governor of Massachusetts you stood in front of a coal plant and said: 'This plant kills,' and took pride in shutting it down – and suddenly you're a champion of coal. So what I've tried to do is be consistent."
Romney would not let it go, arguing Obama's policies had driven up gas prices. "The proof of whether a strategy's working or not is what you're paying at the pump. ... but you're paying more [under Obama]," he said.
The Obama camp was on the defensive entering the debate, following news earlier in the day of the bankruptcy filing by A123 a car battery manufacturer that had received $250m in energy department funding.
The Romney camp said the bankruptcy was another example of the failure of Obama's energy policy, after the collapse of the solar panel maker Solyndra.
Energy is one of the sharpest dividing lines between the two candidates. Obama while professing an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy, including expansion of natural gas and offshore oil, has put renewable energy at the heart of his recovery plan.
About $90m of the economic stimulus was devoted to green initiatives, including insulation for low-income home owners, public transport and high-speed rail as well as clean energy grants.
Obama has disappointed environmental groups by expanding offshore drilling – including exploration in the pristine Arctic – and for diluting and delaying regulations to limit the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. He has not vetoed a pipeline carrying tar sands from Alberta, as campaigners demanded.
But Obama has continued to talk of renewable energy as part of America's future, including at Tuesday night's debate.
Obama has also repeatedly called on Congress to extend tax credits for the wind industry, arguing the support will help save jobs.
Romney, in contrast, has set himself up as a support of American energy, promising to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline on his first day in the White House.
He accuses the Environmental Protection Agency of crushing the coal industry by setting higher standards for new coal-fired power plants.
Romney also opposes extending the tax credit for the wind industry.