By Ari Natter
The fossil fuel industry is squarely in the cross hairs of Democrats running for the White House as they move sharply to the left on climate change, evoking growing alarm from a sector that’s found a cheerleader in the Trump administration. It has moved to rescind regulations on oil drilling and proposed extraordinary measures to aid coal mining.
“We are made to be just some kind of evil force,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas producers. “They are doubling down on it and adding very hostile rhetoric.”
Big oil and its Republican allies say the Democrats’ swing to the left on the issue will backfire with voters, especially in states such as Ohio that Trump won in part with an appeal to aggrieved coal miners. These critics have commissioned studies asserting that the Democratic polices would cost millions of jobs while increasing pump prices for gasoline.
But that hasn’t deterred candidates, such as Sanders, a Vermont senator.
“We’ve got to ask ourselves a simple question: What do you do with an industry that knowingly, for billions of dollars in short-term profits, is destroying this planet?” Sanders said during the most recent Democratic candidate debate. “I say that is criminal activity that cannot be allowed to continue.”
The party’s eagerness to demonize the industry is a marked shift from the 2016 election cycle when Hillary Clinton embraced natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to cleaner power sources and declined to endorse a ban on the controversial drilling technique known as fracking.
Since then, polls have shown voters increasingly concerned about climate change as its effects become more apparent in the form of catastrophic hurricanes, floods, droughts and wildfires. And the progressive Green New Deal, which calls for a “10-year-mobilization” to confront climate change by essentially ending the use of fossil fuels and achieving net-zero carbon emissions, has changed the political calculus of the issue.
“As people are becoming more aware of this emergency they are starting to look for who is responsible,” said Jack Shapiro, a senior climate campaigner with liberal environmental group Greenpeace USA. “I think it’s a common-sense conclusion that if burning fossil fuels is a major cause of climate change, then phasing-out fossil fuels and a reckoning for the fossil fuel industry needs to be part of the solution.”
The candidates are offering increasingly aggressive climate plans — many of which seek to effectively zero-out greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century or sooner. To do that they’re taking aggressive stances aimed squarely at the fossil fuel industry.
A $10 trillion climate plan released by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, for example, vows to “make climate polluters pay” with an excise tax on fossil fuel production she said would generate $100 billion annually to be used for climate projects.
A “Freedom from Fossil Fuels” plan by Washington state Governor Jay Inslee, who is centering his presidential run on halting climate change, calls for rejecting new pipelines, halting fossil fuel exports, and even restricting existing drilling projects on federal lands, as part of a transition away from fossil fuels.
Even Biden, the race’s front-runner who has positioned himself as a union-friendly moderate focused on preserving the middle class, issued an ambitious climate plan that bans new projects on public lands and waters, promises aggressive limits on the sector’s emissions of methane, and calls for a price on carbon.
Asked at a recent debate whether fossil fuels, including coal, and fracking would have a place in his administration, Biden said: “No. We would — we would work it out. We would make sure it’s eliminated and no more subsidies for either one of those, either — any fossil fuel.”
“We’re not talking about a pendulum swing, we are talking about a catapult,” said Kevin Book, managing director of Washington-based ClearView Energy Partners LLC. “That’s the degree of regulatory fervor we would expect if you had all three centers of power turn blue in 2020,” referring to Democratic wins in the White House and both chambers of Congress.
The oil and gas industry and its allies say plans to end fossil fuel use aren’t based in reality and aren’t achievable given energy demand. And they say Democrats are ignoring the climate benefits of natural gas — which has about half the emissions of coal. They’re warning Democrats that aggression toward the industry could alienate millions of U.S. voters who work for oil companies, refiners or help transport fuels around the world.
“We are going to use this against whoever is the nominee,” said Mike McKenna, a GOP strategist whose clients include the refining industry. “Like everything else in this primary season it’s a wonderful lovely gift. Every time these guys open their mouths I can’t believe how easy they are making it.”
Mike Sommers, head of the American Petroleum Institute, said in a call with reporters last month that “we know the threat of climate change is real but the solutions also have to be based in reality.”
An analysis of “keep it in the ground” policies including bans on fracking and federal fossil fuel production, commissioned by the trade group found 5.9 million jobs would be lost, and a cumulative gross domestic product reduction of $11.8 trillion.
The fossil fuel industry is betting on Republicans for continued support.
In 2016, the oil, gas and coal sectors donors favored Trump over Clinton — but backed both candidates. Trump’s campaign got $1.4 million from donors in the fossil fuel industries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, while Clinton got $988,583. A big part of the disparity were donations from coal producers, who gave $280,189 to Trump and just $4,302 to Clinton.
This time around, the industry is already sending checks. Trump’s re-election effort has benefited from an influx of donations, including $339,301 from oil and gas interests. America First Action, the super-PAC that Trump has endorsed, got a $750,000 contribution from Javaid Anwar, the CEO of Midland Energy Inc., in March. Harold Hamm and his Continental Resources Inc. each gave $500,000 in 2018.
Overall, the oil and gas industry has spent nearly $28 million on contributions to U.S. lawmakers during the 2018 election cycle — $23 million of which went to Republicans, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.
“Democrats will destroy the economy and kill millions of jobs in states across the country with their vendetta against coal, oil, and natural gas,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement on Thursday. “Their radical plan to eliminate those industries will devastate workers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, New Mexico, Colorado, and elsewhere.”’