The spotlight on energy issues, from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf to the debate over development of Marcellus Shale gas wells, illuminates the clear philosophical differences between Pennsylvania's Senate candidates.
From drilling to the overall debate on global warming, Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Joe Sestak take contrasting positions.
In keeping with his general hostility toward big government, Mr. Toomey is skeptical of proposals to expand federal oversight of drilling in the Marcellus Shale fields. He opposes open-ended moratoriums on new ocean drilling, arguing that the nation needs the oil from deep water wells and that the Gulf spill, however disastrous and worthy of investigation, is an exception to a track record of generally safe operations by the industry.
He is a sharp critic of the cap-and-trade bill supported by his opponent, contending that it would have disastrous consequences for Pennsylvania businesses.
Mr. Sestak counters that Mr. Toomey's aversion to government regulation poses short- and long-term threats to the environment and the economy.
The Delaware County Democrat has endorsed legislation proposed by his colleague, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., that would bring Marcellus Shale drilling under the oversight of the Safe Drinking Water Act. He has echoed President Barack Obama's call for a strict moratorium on offshore drilling.
Before the Deepwater Horizon spill, he expressed reservations about the administration's decision to expand the areas available for offshore drilling. Mr. Sestak championed the House version of cap-and-trade legislation designed to use market forces to increase the costs of carbon emissions.
Those overlapping issues have provided ammunition for persistent sniping between the campaigns. "Toomey sides with Big Oil in the wake of BP disaster," the Democrat charged in one of the dueling press statements that the campaigns have exchanged in recent days. "On energy, Sestak to the left of many Democrats," a Toomey statement contended.
While the contrasts in their positions are for the most part fairly clear, the contenders have argued over where that leaves them on the overall political spectrum.
In a state with a significant Democratic registration edge, Mr. Sestak argues that Mr. Toomey's strict conservatism and aversion to government regulation -- on the environment as well as on the economy -- makes him the ideological outlier.
Mr. Toomey, on the other hand, characterizes Mr. Sestak's voting record as more liberal than the views of his state on energy as on other issues. On cap and trade, for example, the Republican notes that four of Mr. Sestak's colleagues in the House Democratic delegation voted against the bill. All of those Democratic "no" votes came from districts carried by Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential race.
In Congress and later as president of the Club for Growth, Mr. Toomey argued that a major solution to the nation's energy problems was in increasing the supply of domestically produced oil, whether from the ocean floor or from such currently protected areas as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
In contrast to Mr. Sestak, he welcomed Mr. Obama's decision earlier this year to expand the areas where offshore drilling would be permitted, a step he had long advocated.
Mr. Sestak has been more outspoken in assailing BP's actions in response to the spill. He wrote a letter to BP executives last week urging the corporation to suspend their corporate dividend and direct the revenue to cleanup efforts.
Mr. Toomey has argued that congressional efforts to curtail carbon emissions pose a severe threat to the state's coal industry and to consumers in general. In an interview this week, he pointed to an energy industry estimate, also cited by several PUC commissioners in a 2009 letter to Pennsylvania lawmakers, that the measure would cost as many as 66,000 Pennsylvania jobs over the next decade.
Defending his vote in favor of the cap-and-trade bill, Mr. Sestak counters that it would actually increase the number of jobs in the state in the longer term. Mr. Sestak invokes a projection from a 2009 paper written by scholars at Yale, the University of California and the University of Illinois that estimates that the House version of the bill would add more than 70,000 jobs in Pennsylvania.
Mr. Sestak also maintains that the carbon curbs would help protect the state's $4.7 billion agriculture industry. He concedes its emissions controls could lead to residential electricity price increases in the short term, but says that consumers would realize savings in the longer term as new and cleaner fuel sources become available.
The candidates also differ on the core issue of global warming, and whether climate legislation would do anything to alleviate it. Unlike some conservative figures, Mr. Toomey acknowledges that global warming exists but he is an agnostic on the crucial question of whether it is a product of human activity.
"There's no question that the Earth's surface temperature has increased," he said in a statement. "There is much debate in the scientific community as to the precise sources of global warming. There is no doubt that the proposed cap-and-trade 'solution' would do nothing to stop global warming but would be devastating to jobs and the economy in Pennsylvania."
Mr. Sestak said global warming is principally man-made, citing a series of scientific findings on the matter. "I know Congressman Toomey is quite extreme, quite radical, but the vast majority of the mainstream says yes, it is [man-made]," he said.
In keeping with those positions, the opponents split this week on a closely watched Senate bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, that would have stripped the EPA of the ability to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.
Mr. Sestak's campaign said he would have opposed the measure. Mr. Toomey supported the bill, calling the EPA's regulatory proposals a back-door effort to institute a cap-and-trade system, which is stalled in the Senate.
While describing the Marcellus Shale as "a boon to our economy," Mr. Sestak has called for state taxes on the natural gas. Mr. Toomey is averse to new taxes in general.
The Democrat has also endorsed a proposal from Mr. Casey and New York Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer that is designed to increase federal oversight of gas drilling.
Asked about the measure last week, Mr. Toomey warned that overlapping bureaucracies pose threats of inefficiency and rising costs. He pointed with approval to the regulatory steps taken by Pennsylvania's environmental officials in response to a Clearfield County gas blowout last week.
To justify the new federal oversight, Mr. Toomey said, "the burden is on Mr. Sestak" and other supporters of the Casey-Schumer bill to demonstrate that Pennsylvania's environmental officials are somehow derelict in their oversight.
Mr. Sestak tied his opponent's position to his business and finance background and his general opposition to government regulation. Mr. Toomey worked as an investment banker and then founded a restaurant business before being elected to Congress.
"We're fortunate we haven't had any deaths or anything like that [in Pennsylvania gas drilling] but part of good leadership is about preventing a crisis from occurring," Mr. Sestak said. "Congressman Toomey will always side with big business, Wall Street, big corporations. Recklessness is what causes joblessness."