Biden draws GOP attacks with call to ‘transition’ from oil

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Sunday, October 25, 2020

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.

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 originatesfrom 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.