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Climate Activists Push Biden to Cut Ties With Industry-Friendly Energy Advisers

Environmentalists are floating potential cabinet picks, hoping to pressure Biden to take on the fossil fuel industry.

Climate activists briefly protest as former Vice President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on March 10, 2020.

With President Trump’s poll numbers sinking, he is increasingly turning to the fossil fuel industry for support. Rallying oil patch workers and executives during a stop at a fracking rig in West Texas’s Permian Basin in late July, the president stood in front of stacked oil drums and declared “victory” over spring’s historic crash in oil prices that continues to throttle most of the U.S. oil and gas industry.

Reeling after more than 100,000 job losses since February and an overall decline in demand, fossil fuel executives and lobbyists have poured more than $936,000 into Trump’s reelection bid in hopes of keeping a staunch ally in the White House. Oil prices have rebounded to around $40 a barrel, still below what many drillers need to break even, after dipping below negative for the first time in April.

The second quarter proved one of the worst on record for the oil industry. The U.S.’s two largest oil giants, Exxon and Chevron, lost $1.1 billion and $8.27 billion, respectively. “We’ve never seen a decline of this magnitude and pace before, even relative to the historic periods of demand volatility following the global financial crisis and as far back as the 1970s oil and energy crisis,” Exxon Senior Vice President Neil Chapman told investors recently.

In Midland, Texas, Trump sought to contrast his support for the flailing oil and gas industry with presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s increasingly ambitious climate plan. Biden, however, has stopped short of calling for a fracking ban, even as a weakened industry pads executives’ pockets and lays off hundreds of workers rather than slash shareholder profits. His plan would only ban fracking on public lands.

While Biden has refused to endorse a Green New Deal, he has championed several far-reaching Sanders-Biden unity task force recommendations on climate. Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan calls for 100 percent clean electricity, or net-zero emissions, by 2035 and sweeping infrastructure upgrades that would create millions of new jobs. It also includes a commitment to invest 40 percent of the clean energy money in historically disadvantaged and disproportionately polluted communities of color.

Biden is largely pitching his clean energy agenda, the second plank of his economic recovery plan, as an economic stimulus that will help clean up the environment. It includes putting people to work plugging thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells.

“We must work to get in climate hawks who understand that every fossil fuel permitting decision is a potential step away from 1.5 degrees.”

His original plan called for spending $1.7 trillion over 10 years and hoped to achieve net-zero emissions before 2050. His new proposal drastically accelerates the timeline and investment, and has won over many Sanders-wing progressives and environmentalists. The plan has come far enough that the Sunrise Movement, after giving Biden’s previous proposal an “F,” has now agreed to campaign for him.

Just as progressives helped shape Biden’s climate plan, they have also won on key climate proposals in the party’s larger policy platform, a draft of which was released last month and is largely in line with Biden’s climate policy goals.

Climate Activists Push Biden Left

RL Miller, chair of the California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus and a member-elect to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) on the advisory committee of the DNC climate council, told Truthout she pushed several key climate-related amendments to the platform, including a commitment to limit planetary warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, in line with scientific guidance. Another amendment she pushed would have added an end date for the production and sale of gasoline-powered cars but failed.

While Biden’s plan does not commit to getting the country off fossil fuels along the timeline the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends, the fact that Biden and the DNC were “willing to put 1.5 degrees in the platform tells me that he’s absolutely on the right path,” Miller says.

“As a Democrat, I do appreciate that he’s putting a focus on labor. He wants to unionize the renewable energy industry.”

As she waits for the formal platform to come down and the convention to be gaveled, she is turning her focus to Biden’s informal climate advisory group. Joining with progressive think tanks Data for Progress and the Revolving Door Project, Miller is helping pressure Biden to distance himself from Obama-era climate moderates now informally advising him, such as former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Heather Zichal, Obama’s environment aide. Since leaving government, both have served on fossil fuel-linked corporate boards.

The groups are assembling dossiers critical of several Biden advisers and are looking toward a letter-writing and petition-driven campaign to ratchet up pressure in the run-up to the Democratic convention next week. The activists say Biden’s reliance on Obama’s energy officials is already limiting the scope of his climate agenda. Even the Biden-Sanders unity task force report, they point out, leaves open possibilities for supporting fracked gas ventures.

Climate activists are floating a number of choices as potential cabinet picks, including names like Washington Gov. Jay Inslee for Interior secretary and California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols for Environmental Protection Agency administrator. “We must work to get in climate hawks who understand that every fossil fuel permitting decision is a potential step away from 1.5 degrees,” Miller told Truthout.

Moniz, who serves on the board of Southern Co., has become a major concern for environmentalists. With the backing of the AFL-CIO, Moniz’s nonprofit, the Energy Futures Initiative, launched an “all of the above” style climate initiative on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day called the Labor Energy Partnership. The alliance supports increased fracking, carbon capture technologies, and a number of the ventures that line up with Moniz’s personal financial investments.

Miller calls the Labor Energy Partnership “one of the worst policy proposals to ever come out of the Democratic Party,” arguing that it would lock in fossil fuel infrastructure “for eternity.” She would rather see a stronger linkage of the U.S. climate and labor movements that focused and committed to decarbonizing the economy. That’s one thing that Biden could potentially get right — as long as he stays away from Moniz.

“A lot of the Obama-era regulations were well-intentioned and may have been based on the cutting-edge science of 2012, but the science has changed.”

“As a Democrat, I do appreciate that he’s putting a focus on labor. He wants to unionize the renewable energy industry, which honestly, I think needs to be done,” she says, but Biden’s reticence to target the industry more aggressively is “disappointing” and an area where progressives “simply need to work hard” in a potential Biden administration. Rolled-back regulations must be not only reinstated but also strengthened and updated to match today’s science, Miller adds.

“A lot of the Obama-era regulations were well-intentioned and may have been based on the cutting-edge science of 2012, but the science has changed,” Miller says. “The science tells us that we have to go faster.”

In order to meet the timeline the IPCC recommends, it’s not enough only to focus on transitioning to a clean energy economy; it’s also necessary to drive down fossil fuel extraction and production. In fact, global oil and gas extraction must decline 37 and 25 percent respectively within the decade to avert planetary warming of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But Biden’s climate plan avoids that part of the equation entirely. To make matters worse, his plan is now garnering support from the very same oil and gas industry that needs to be ramped down to ensure a stable climate future and that is working desperately to fill Trump campaign coffers ahead of November.

“There is a lot of room in there for oil and gas,” Matt Gallagher, president of Parsley Energy, a West Texas oil producer, recently told The New York Times, of Biden’s climate plan. The industry has praised the plan for its proposed investments in carbon capture and sequestration, which purports to prevent greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere, allowing industry to continue extracting fossil fuels in perpetuity.

Part of the reason Biden is sidestepping the industry has a lot to do with the politics of his home state of Pennsylvania — a swing state Biden must win to defeat President Trump and a state where even the weakened fracking industry still holds huge sway.

Fossil-Fueled Politics in Pennsylvania

Megan McDonough, Pennsylvania organizing manager with Food and Water Watch, tells Truthout that targeting fracking, even in Pennsylvania, is not a big political risk as Biden’s campaign team thinks it is. Moreover, the industry is running campaign ads painting Biden as supporting a fracking ban in any case, so the distinction may not ultimately matter.

According to a CBS poll released Sunday, Biden is leading in Pennsylvania by 6 points. The poll also found that public support for fracking is waning, with 52 percent of respondents saying they oppose fracking and 48 percent supporting it.

Moreover, Biden has misstated his own position of the issue, saying in one debate that he would allow “no new fracking,” which his campaign later clarified as a position limited to public lands. The Trump campaign has taken advantage of the slip to characterize Biden as calling for a full-fledged fracking ban. The pro-Trump super PAC America First Action has spent more than $1.2 million on attack ads slamming Biden on fracking in Pennsylvania.

“Biden’s plan tiptoes around fracking and really falls short for the same reason that a lot of others do: that false narrative that opposition to fracking is a bad political stance to take in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately that narrative exists simply because the truth isn’t being told,” McDonough says. “This narrative has really nothing to do with what the people of Pennsylvania want; it has everything to do with money.”

“Biden’s plan tiptoes around fracking and really falls short for the same reason that a lot of others do: that false narrative that opposition to fracking is a bad political stance to take in Pennsylvania.”

McDonough points to State Rep. Danielle Friel Otten’s recent primary win over Rose Danese in the 155th Legislative District for the state House of Representatives. Otten ran on a platform of combating an expansion of the Sunoco Mariner East pipeline, which carries fracked gas from the state’s vast Marcellus and Utica shale formations. Friel Otten won her primary despite an industry-backed dark money infusion of at least $517,000 worth of attack ads against her and another candidate opposed to the pipeline.

Still, even as the industry remains weakened amid the global pandemic and subsequent oil crash, billionaire investors and former government officials in the state are pursuing new fracking ventures. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett is drawing fire after joining the board of the East Resources Acquisition Company, headed up by two billionaires who own the Buffalo Bills football and Sabres hockey teams.

Pennsylvania Democrats insist that Biden must continue to carefully maneuver in the state to avoid alienating thousands of blue-collar oil and gas workers in dozens of both red and blue districts. The industry supplies an estimated 26,000 jobs in the state, according to Politico.

McDonough says those jobs, though, have been in decline amid the industry’s pandemic-induced instability. Production in the Marcellus shale has taken a hit. Pennsylvania’s rotary rig count fell “to 20 from 37 at this time last year,” according to the oil field service company Baker Hughes. That’s why, McDonough says, Biden should be campaigning on transitioning oil and gas jobs to clean energy jobs.

“The fracking industry is in serious trouble. They’ve been producing too much gas to turn a profit, and Wall Street has been shoveling money to them. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania lawmakers … are really now answering that back with throwing them a lifeline with some of these recent decisions to hand out multimillion-dollar tax breaks, but I don’t think it’s something that’s going to save this industry.”

I think it’s the perfect time to see this industry for what it really is.”

As Truthout contributor Alexis Goldstein notes, the industry itself has been recklessly eliminating oil and gas jobs while pushing out money to executives just before companies file for bankruptcy. Exxon chose to lay off workers rather than cut its shareholder dividend, which it has raised 37 years in a row.

The industry is also making those jobs more precarious as prices plunge and the pandemic drags on: Oil companies have lobbied Congress to shield them from liability for workers who get sick due to unsafe conditions and are refusing to continue matching workers’ contributions to their retirement savings plans. The industry is sacrificing its workers’ jobs and safety even as the Federal Reserve, Goldstein notes, “leverages $75 billion in public money provided by the CARES Act” to allow them “to purchase up to $750 million in corporate bonds.”

“I think it’s the perfect time to see this industry for what it really is,” McDonough says.

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