It’s the season of eye-rolling and sighing for those who know energy.

For good or bad, energy is a big issue in this year’s presidential campaign, served up in slogans and attacks that often miss the industry’s complexity.

“We’ve become stuck in this dialog of extremes: It should be all one type of energy or another. That is not an accurate reflection of the way our energy infrastructure works,” said Arno Harris, CEO of Recurrent Energy and board chairman of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Politics and policy are not the same. What we hear may not be what we see after the election. But which sound bites are credible – and might result in real change in the industry’s landscape? And what’s just fleeting campaign rhetoric?

The Republican camp has gone full force after President Barack Obama’s support for renewable energy. Republican nominee Mitt Romney charged in a newspaper opinion piece that Obama is trying to replace “real energy” with “an imaginary world where government-subsidized windmills and solar panels could power the economy.” He’s also has called wind and solar “ballyhooed” alternatives.

“I think he knows better than that; certainly people around him do. This is a reaction to the Obama administration’s promotion of renewables more than a statement of policy,” said Rick Kessler president of Dow Lohnes Government Strategies in Washington DC and vice president of the Pipeline Safety Trust.

Lots of Talk, Lack of Clarity

Romney’s record offers little clarity on how he would actually treat renewable energy if elected. On the one hand, as Governor of Massachusetts he pushed renewable portfolio standards – government mandates that utilities purchase a certain amount of green energy – in his 2004 Massachusetts Climate Protection Plan. Yet he also opposed Cape Wind, the largest renewable energy project in Massachusetts and the first offshore wind farm proposed in the US. (The project won a federal lease from Obama’s administration.)

In Romney’s energy plan released August 23, he doesn’t leave out renewables, but places heavy emphasis on fossil fuels, mentioning oil and gas more than 200 times, solar and wind fewer than 30.

So is green energy in trouble if Romney gets elected? It’s not clear. SEIA’s Harris pointed out that historically renewable energy has not been a Republican or Democrat issue and he’s hopeful Romney’s more “data-driven” nature will prevail, and he’ll see the resource’s economic value, especially in a power grid increasingly reliant on natural gas. “But as campaigns do, they are looking for an opportunity to score points,” he added.

Meanwhile the Obama camp has embraced what seems like an almost bullet-proof slogan that calls for “all of the above” energy development. The popular phrase also has been used by the US Chamber of Commerce and at times even Romney.

But what is ‘all?’

“Blocking Keystone is not an all-of-the-above play,” said Joel West, a professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Claremont Colleges Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences, referring to Obama’s refusal in January to sign a Presidential Permit for TransCanada’s pipeline that would move Canadian oil to US refineries.

Kessler added that all-of-the above is a “great sounding slogan. But what does it really mean? Both sides define it differently. On the Republican side it tends to mean all different sorts of fuel supply. To Democrats the emphasis is in a different place – on managing demand, efficiency, renewables and developing relatively newer sources of energy.”

great sounding slogan. But what does it really mean?”

Indeed, on the campaign trail Romney has attacked Obama’s all-of-the above policy as being “for all the sources of energy that come from above the ground and none of those that come from below the ground like oil and coal and gas.”

And it’s true that renewables and energy efficiency have enjoyed unprecedented financial support under Obama, much of it in the form of stimulus money. Coal, meanwhile, has not fared so well. In the next five years the nation is expected to shutter 8.5 percent of its coal-fired generation capacity, a quadrupling of the closure of the previous five years, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Still, Obama’s campaign literature promotes ‘below the ground’ resources, trumpeting that domestic oil and natural production rose every year during his presidency.

So what will the next four years look like if Obama wins? Will he be a green leaning president that’s okay with certain fossil fuels? And might Romney be a fossil fuel president with a tinge of green?

See ‘Fossil Fuels: More, Less or the Same Under Obama or Romney?’ – the second article in this four-part Breaking Energy series by Elisa Wood on energy and the presidential election.