As many on the left expected, presidential hopeful Joe Biden is tacking to the center on climate in an attempt to appeal to blue-collar workers and the energy sector, setting the stage for a fierce debate among the Democratic primary contenders over pipelines and the future of the nation’s vast fossil fuel reserves.
On Friday, a Reuters report citing Biden campaign advisers suggested that the former vice president’s campaign is crafting a “middle ground” climate policy that would embrace natural gas, nuclear energy and technology that would reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuel energy sources, rather than moving away from fossil fuels altogether.
In contrast, a number of high-profile Democrats have cosponsored or shown support for the Green New Deal, a sweeping vision for achieving net-zero carbon emissions within a decade by transforming the economy with green infrastructure and transitioning away from fossil fuels for good. The proposal, championed by Democratic rock stars like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and legions of young activists, has electrified progressives and sent conservatives into a tizzy about the rise of “socialism.”
The 2020 elections loom as the U.S. arrives at a carbon crossroads. Global anxiety over climate disruption and environmental devastation is reaching a fever pitch. Scientists warn that governments must take drastic action to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and prevent the mass extinction of up to 1 million species. Meanwhile, the fracking boom has unlocked massive reserves of domestic oil and gas, and the U.S. is poised to become the world’s top fossil fuel producer for decades to come.
“North America is now energy independent … and the United States is soon going to be the largest producer of energy of any nation in the world by the end of the 2020s,” Biden recently told a crowd in Iowa while boasting about the country’s economic strength.
Biden is by no means a climate denier, and he frequently reminds voters that he pushed global warming legislation as far back as 1987. However, Biden already appears to be on track to continue the “all of the above” approach to climate and energy taken by his former boss, President Obama.
Obama angered environmentalists to his left by embracing the fracking boom. The former president noted that natural gas produced by fracking burns cleaner than coal, which produces the most carbon emissions in the power sector. Under Obama and Biden’s watch, the administration also pumped funding into carbon sequestration technology that captures emissions created by burning fossil fuels before they enter the atmosphere.
Both initiatives fell flat. Carbon sequestration for coal power plants proved to be too expensive to roll out on a mass scale as gas and oil prices plummeted. And now, the Trump administration has systematically rolled back Obama-era regulations meant to mitigate the climate impacts of the rapidly expanding fossil fuel industry, including the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s signature climate effort.
Like Obama, Biden would attempt to clean up the fossil fuel industry by reinstating environmental regulations stripped away by the Trump administration and set goals for expanding renewable energy. But he is unlikely to start moving the country away from fossil fuels altogether, as many of his rivals have promised to do. This would put Biden at odds with much of the left, which is calling for green jobs and a “just transition” away from a fossil fuel economy while galvanizing a growing resistance movement to pipelines and other infrastructure projects.
“Grassroots activism has propelled climate change to the top of the agenda for Democratic voters. Biden’s climate stance is not only uninspiring — it will doom us to climate chaos,” said Mitch Jones, the climate and energy director at the environmental group Food and Water Watch, in a statement.
Biden may be counting on the fact that even the most tepid climate mitigation efforts will be a sharp contrast to the policies of President Trump, who has peddled climate denialism and fully embraced the fossil fuel boom. Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, expanded drilling on public lands and placed industry insiders at the helm of federal agencies. Biden would prioritize reentering the Paris agreement and preserving vehicle emission standards and other environmental regulations targeted by Trump, according to the Reuters report.
While Biden can easily build a climate policy around setting the country back on the course charted by Obama, environmentalists say politicians must commit to a “keep it in the ground” approach to fossil fuels if we are to avoid climate catastrophe.
“This fossil fuel-friendly agenda would amount to a death sentence for a livable climate,” Jones said.
This also means the Biden campaign could benefit from contributions from the fossil fuel sector, if he is willing to take the political heat that is sure to come with it. A number of top Democratic candidates, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke and Tulsi Gabbard, have pledged to not to take any campaign cash from fossil fuel interests, and any candidate who does is sure to hear about it on the debate stage and campaign trail.
Climate disruption is a top issue for Democratic voters, but it’s still early in the primary season. Only two Democratic contenders – Beto O’Rourke and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee – have unveiled their official climate platforms, and both candidates have a plan to make the U.S. carbon-neutral within the next three decades. Other major Democrats appear to be putting their own spin on a “just transition” away from fossil fuels. For example, Bernie Sanders wants to create green infrastructure jobs for the working class, Elizabeth Warren would halt drilling on public lands, and Cory Booker wants to bolster federal protections for communities of color impacted by pollution.
Biden, on the other hand, appears to be more interested in courting swing voters than saving the planet. If he continues to lead the pack with that approach, you can bet that fossil fuels will be at the center of the Democratic primaries for months to come.