The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Biden draws GOP attacks with call to 'transition' from oil

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with Alexandra Ellerbeck

Republicans and even some Democrats criticized Joe Biden after he said during the final presidential debate that he wanted to “transition from the oil industry” in order to fight what he called the existential threat of climate change.

When pressed by debate moderator Kristen Welker, the former vice president suggested the burning of petroleum, which adds greenhouse gases to the air, eventually has to end “because the oil industry pollutes significantly.”

“It has to be replaced by renewable energy, over time. Over time,” he added.

Democratic nominee Joe Biden on Oct. 22 clarified that the country's need to transition off fossil fuels does not mean he will impose a ban on the oil industry. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The comment drew attacks from both the oil and gas industry and its Republican allies, who faulted Biden for endangering energy jobs with his climate policies. But what he had to say shouldn't shock anyone who has been following the Democratic nominee's campaign.

And on stage in Nashville, President Trump immediate pounced in defense of an industry that has been a consistent ally, trying to score political points with voters in oil-producing states. “Basically what he's saying is he is going to destroy the oil industry,” Trump responded. “Will you remember that Texas, will you remember that Pennsylvania, Oklahoma?”

Biden's assertion is in line with his long-term climate goals. But it comes at a delicate moment for him and other Democrats.

His official plan for tackling climate change calls for eliminating the nation's contributions to rising global temperatures by the middle of the century. It comes in response to U.N. scientists who say rapidly cutting greenhouse gas emissions is necessary to avoid irreversible damage to the planet. 

While Biden's plan does not call for a ban on fossil fuels and includes measures for continuing their use by capturing their carbon emissions, the 2050 goal still cannot be achieved without significantly curtailing the burning of oil and gas. Indeed, the Democrat's proposal includes a major subsidy for consumers to buy electric vehicles and get rid of cars that rely exclusively on petroleum-based fuels.

On the campaign trail, Biden has taken pains to repeatedly insist he will not stop one extraction technique — hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — heavily used in the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania. 

With his lead in the polls nationally, Biden may have more leeway to push a more progressive climate change agenda. But they may hurt down-ballot Democrats struggling to keep their seats.

At least two representing oil-producing districts — Reps. Kendra Horn of Oklahoma and Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico — distanced themselves from Biden after the debate. 

Both House Democrats are running in tight reelection contests labeled by the Cook Political Report as "toss-ups."

Perhaps sensing the problem, Biden sought to clarify his remarks after the debate, telling reporter he wants to end federal subsidies to oil companies. 

“We're getting rid of the subsidies for fossil fuels,” he said, “but we're not getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time.”

That backpedaling did not stop oil industry allies from attacking Biden.

Several Republicans — including Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Rick Perry, Trump's first energy secretary — sought to amplify Biden's comments to swing state voters.

And the American Petroleum Institute, a major oil and gas lobbying group already skeptical of Biden's climate plan, issued a defiant statement in response to Biden. 

“We are proud of the grit, innovation and progress we've made so that Americans no longer have to choose between environmental progress and access to affordable, reliable and cleaner energy,” said chief executive Mike Sommers, a former aide to John A. Boehner, the Republican House speaker. “And we aren’t going anywhere.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, climate activists once reluctant to back Biden were happy to see him voice what they saw as a strong message on global warming.

“Tonight marked a distinct shift in Biden’s rhetoric on climate: he went on offense,” said Evan Weber, political director for the youth-led Sunrise Movement. “Biden’s closing statement on what he would say to the country on Inauguration Day sounded a lot like our vision of the Green New Deal.”

Biden and Trump sparred over energy policy during a presidential debate that heavily featured climate change for the first time in years. 

As our colleagues Brady Dennis, Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson report, the last time there was any substantive discussion of climate change was two decades ago, during a debate between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush.

On Thursday, the two candidates laid out sharply different visions. Trump again promoted his promise to withdraw from the landmark 2015 Paris agreement, saying: “I will not sacrifice tens of millions of jobs, thousands of companies.” Biden countered by saying that rejoining the Paris accord and fighting climate change would “create millions of new good paying jobs.”

The president also dinged Biden's energy efficiency goals. “They want to knock down buildings and build new buildings with little, tiny windows," he said without evidence. What Biden's climate plan actually provides is incentives for retrofits to improve energy use in existing structures.

Trump again claimed Biden’s plan to fight climate change would cost $100 trillion — far from the former vice president’s actual proposal to spend $2 trillion over four years. The president's exaggerated price tag most likely originates from a conservative wonk’s back-of-the-envelope calculations on Twitter more than a year ago for the Green New Deal — well before Biden rolled out his own plan.

“He kept referring back to plans of the Dem primary candidates Biden defeated (and we criticized) but didn't touch Biden's actual plan,” Josh Freed, head of the climate and energy program at the center-left think tank Third Way, said by email.

Trump also said Biden supports a ban on fracking — a claim his Democratic opponent has repeatedly knocked down, including on Thursday evening. “I never said I oppose fracking,” Biden said. 

Biden has sometimes fumbled over his words when describing his position on fracking on the campaign trail. He supports ending new permits for fracking and other oil and gas drilling only on federal lands out West — but not on state or private lands such as those in Pennsylvania.

The technique is controversial both for the risk it poses to drinking water and for the greenhouse gas emissions it causes. His stance has helped him win the support of labor groups in the energy sector. Still, during the debate, Biden emphasized he wants to reduce fracking's environmental footprint.

Power plays

When the cameras were off, Trump acknowledged the role of climate change in California fires.

During a meeting with California leaders last month, the president appeared to dismiss the role of climate change in exacerbating a record-breaking series of wildfires that have devastated the state. 

“It will start getting cooler. You just watch,” the president said. When a participant objected, pointing out that the science predicted the opposite, Trump responded, “I don’t think science knows, actually.” 

A few minutes later, however, the president changed his tune while out of view of the television cameras. Several witnesses described what happened when Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) approached Trump after the event and said he hoped the president understood why California leaders thought it was so important to highlight the role of climate change, the New York Times reports.

“Gavin, I totally get it, and really it’s probably like 50-50,” Trump replied, referring to the role of poor forest management and the role of climate change in fueling the fires. 

Top senator on energy committee says carbon pricing should be on the table.

“I know that a price on carbon is one that makes Republicans more than a little bit nervous,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said on Wednesday during an event with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) that was sponsored by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. “But I do think that can be and that should be one of the options that is on the table for discussion, in terms of how you can move policies forward,” she added.

Murkowski, the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, made similar comments last year during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which she chairs.

But now, lawmakers, particularly Democrats, are increasingly contemplating how climate policy could take shape in a closely divided Senate should Democrats take the Senate and White House in the elections next month,” E&E News reports. “Murkowski, long a swing vote on various issues in the Senate, could be an important voice in shaping the Republican side of that conversation.” 

North Dakota seeks to use coronavirus aid for fracking.

“State officials say there isn’t enough time left to clean up every abandoned oil field well site they had intended to this year using federal coronavirus aid, so they want to repurpose $16 million and put it toward grants for fracking,” the Bismark Tribune reports. “Regulators present the proposal as a way to create jobs and help stabilize state revenue, while some in the environmental community view it as a bailout for the oil industry.”

The North Dakota Emergency Commission will consider a proposal on Friday that would give oil companies a $200,000 reimbursement for each oil well they clean up. The abandoned wells can leak underground or release emissions. The reimbursement money could then be repurposed toward acquiring and disposing of water used for fracking.

Cities fall short of climate pledges.

With little major action on climate change at the federal level, activists and policymakers have turned to cities and local governments in the battle against greenhouse gases. A Brookings analysis of the 100 largest U.S. cities, however, finds that slightly less than half have established targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Of those that have, approximately two-thirds lag behind their targets.

“What cities are doing is — at best — a start,” Brookings writes in a blog post accompanying the report. “Still, the places that have made climate pledges are making a modest dent in emissions. The 45 cities with pledges will, by themselves, eliminate about 6% of total annual U.S. emissions compared with 2017 levels, which adds up to the equivalent of 365 million metric tons of carbon pollution — a volume equal to removing about 79 million passenger vehicles from the road.” 

The Environmental Protection Agency agrees to crack down on air pollution from oil and fracking.

A federal court in San Fransisco approved an agreement between the EPA and conservation groups that will force the agency. to boost its enforcement of smog produced from oil extraction and hydraulic fracturing. Under the agreement, the EPA will require areas with poor air quality to produce plans on how they will clean up pollution from the fossil fuel industries. 

The agreement, which stems from a complaint brought by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Center for Environmental Health, will affect Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Virginia and the greater metropolitan areas of Dallas, Houston, Denver, San Diego, Phoenix and eastern Kern County in California.


A Colorado wildfire grew sixfold in just 24 hours. 

The East Troublesome Fire, which covered 125,600 acres as of Thursday morning, forced hundreds to flee from the towns of Grand Lake and Granby. The fire is now the fourth largest on record in Colorado, joining two others this year on the list of the biggest five fires in Colorado history.

“The blaze has all the hallmarks of climate change. It’s burning at an elevation of 9,000 feet at a time of year when snow should be falling,” out colleague Andrew Freedman reports. “The fire is also raging during a severe drought, aggravated by record heat, through stands of trees killed or weakened by a bark beetle infestation.”

Officials have ordered evacuations in Rocky Mountain National Park and parts of Estes Park.

The East Troublesome Fire, now the fourth-largest wildfire in Colorado history as of Oct. 22, has forced hundreds to evacuate across Grand County, Colo. (Video: The Washington Post)

Oil check

ExxonMobil announces layoffs.

The oil company's chief executive, Darren Woods, said in May that the company had no plans to lay off any of its 16,000 workers, even as other oil and gas companies cut thousands of workers amid an oil slump driven by the coronavirus pandemic. On Wednesday, however, Woods announced that layoffs were inevitable.

“It’s a stunning admission by ExxonMobil, once the world’s most valuable company just seven years ago and one that has long prided itself on weathering the boom and bust cycles of the crude market without resorting to layoffs,” the Houston Chronicle reports

Exxon has deferred more than $10 billion of capital spending during the economic downturn triggered by the pandemic.

“Even if demand recovers over the next couple of years, Exxon faces the prospects of declining fossil fuel demand in the coming decade as more countries and corporations take action to mitigate climate change,” the Houston Chronicle writes.

France hits pause on an agreement for U.S. liquefied natural gas. 

The French government cited environmental concerns in asking domestic power group Engie to hold off on signing a deal with NextDecade to import U.S. liquefied natural gas.

“The intervention comes amid growing scrutiny over the effects of shale gas extraction methods such as fracking and their impact on climate change through methane emissions, especially among U.S. producers,” Reuters reports.

The move comes amid broader trade disputes between the United States and Europe. The scrambled agreement could impact NextDecade, as it is due to decide whether to move forward with plans to build a liquefied natural gas export facility in Texas.

“Looking ahead, however, analysts said a victory by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in the Nov. 3 U.S. election would increase the odds of a deal between Engie and NextDecade. Biden, should he win, is expected to bring tough new regulations on energy industry emissions, which might ease concerns of French regulators and others,” Reuters writes.

Plugged in

The Hummer, long the bane of environmentalists, is back, but this time it’s electric.

“This week, GM unveiled its entrant in the high-stakes race to bring an electric pickup to market: the 2022 GMC Hummer EV. The ‘world’s first supertruck’ revives the Hummer brand — a beloved icon to some, a symbol of excess to others — for the first time since it was phased out in 2010,” our colleague Taylor Telford reports

The General Motors truck, an ultraluxury pickup, is the first offering in GM’s $20 billion pivot to electric vehicles, as it competes with Tesla, Ford and Amazon-backed Rivian, all of which are also working on electric pickups. In 2019, the nation’s top three best-selling vehicles were trucks, and automakers anticipate that the growing availability of charging stations, as well as the looming threat of regulations on gas-powered vehicles, will increase the value of electric offerings.