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Green dreams collide with energy crisis reality

Joe Biden/Mohammed bin Salman
Associated Press-Patrick Semansky/Getty Images

Today’s surging oil and gas prices confront progressive climate activists with a discomfiting truth: Their campaign to vilify and suppress fossil fuel production has crashed headlong into Americans’ urgent appetite for affordable energy.  

The green left is not happy with President Biden, who is pulling out all the stops to give Americans some temporary relief from punishingly high fuel prices. That includes jawboning U.S. oil companies to drill more, a widely panned proposal to suspend the federal gas tax and Thursday’s controversial visit to Saudi Arabia, whose leaders the White House has implored to boost production to stabilize world oil markets. 

It’s true that high fuel prices are heightening the contradiction at the heart of the Biden administration’s climate and energy policies. If your overriding aim is to drive down consumption of fossil fuels, high prices are a good thing. But that’s a hard sell to working families struggling with $5 a gallon gas and soaring utility bills

With the midterm elections looming, activists shouldn’t be too quick to pillory Biden — especially since it’s their premature if not utopian demands to abolish fossil fuels as soon as possible that have landed him and his party in this predicament. 

While Republicans cower before MAGA climate deniers, Democrats take climate science seriously and favor decarbonizing the economy. But party leaders – lobbied intensely by a potent network of young activists, old environmental groups jockeying for fresh relevance, liberal foundations and donors, and media elites – too often convey a misleading impression of how fast and frictionless that transition will be. 

Today’s energy crunch is forcing everyone to reckon with the reality that fossil fuels aren’t disappearing anytime soon. On the contrary, U.S. liquid natural gas exports to Europe are booming as Germany and other NATO countries belatedly acknowledge the steep strategic and climate costs of their dependence on Russian gas. 

As they scramble to diversify their fuel supply, Europeans fear that Russian strongman Vladimir Putin may retaliate by shutting down the Nord Stream pipeline altogether after a scheduled 10-day maintenance outage. Czech energy official Vaclav Bartuska sums up the mood in Europe: “If there is a gas cut this winter, we will burn anything to keep our people warm and make electricity.”

The worst energy crisis in decades underscores the limits of the green left’s political strategy, which seeks to scare Americans off fossil fuels with increasingly shrill predictions of impending planetary doom. When it comes to building a broad-based coalition for dramatic action on climate change, such “climate catastrophism,” as liberal political analyst Ruy Teixeira calls it, has been an abysmal failure. 

Polls show that most Americans generally accept the reality of climate change and want to see more done to slow it down. But it’s far from their top concern. In a recent Gallup poll, a mere 2 percent of voters identified climate change as the nation’s most important problem. Working class voters rank it 14th on their priority list. Other surveys show that people aren’t willing to pay significantly higher energy bills to combat global warming. 

Most voters, it seems, are climate “lukewarmists.” Compared to more immediate hazards – such as COVID-19, which has killed more than 1 million Americans over the past two years – the harms from climate change still seem over the horizon.  

Fossil prohibitionism goes hand-in-hand with ritual floggings of U.S. gas and oil producers. In the quasi-religious language of green holy warriors, fossil fuels assume the role of original sin, and companies that have supplied Americans with reliable and affordable energy for more than a century are caricatured as profit-hungry despoilers of nature. To punish them, green purists demand immediate fracking bans, gin up far-fetched global warming lawsuits against oil and gas companies and pressure Wall Street to disinvest in them.  

They also advise Democrats to pin energy inflation on price gouging by “Big Oil.” This hoary populist trope isn’t convincing. Gas prices are rising everywhere, thanks to supply and demand mismatches as major economies recover from the COVID shutdowns and the Ukraine war roils world energy markets.   

Casting energy companies as the moral equivalent of drug dealers is false, hypocritical and counterproductive. Conveniently it lets 300+ million Americans off the hook, as if our demand for abundant, cheap and reliable energy isn’t the main force driving energy companies to explore and drill. This includes green activists, who presumably don’t sail to protests or drop into global climate confabs via solar-powered jetpacks, but rely on planes, trains and automobiles like the rest of us. 

The left’s “greedflation” narrative also makes it harder for government to partner with major energy companies, which have begun to make major investments in methane reduction, renewable energy, carbon capture and storage, hydrogen, biomass and geothermal and other clean and efficiency-enhancing technologies. Building trust is tough when the companies are whipsawed by contradictory demands from government officials that they shrink their productive capacity while keeping prices down. 

To win broad public support for comprehensive climate legislation, and to support U.S. foreign policy, Democrats should embrace a more pragmatic, balanced and honest approach to the clean energy transition. For now, America needs more of everything – fossil fuels, wind, solar and hydro, next generation nuclear power, conservation and robust public and private investments in energy innovation across the board. 

And as Biden recognizes, America should export more natural gas to Europe and Asia to help our democratic allies reduce their dependence on coal and kick their addiction to energy from Russia and other authoritarian petrostates.

Instead of frightening the public with prophecies of ecological disaster, our leaders should level with voters – and activists – about the role legacy fuels are bound to play for decades to come, in our country and especially the rest of the world. That will help them set a more realistic and politically sustainable pace for America’s clean energy transition.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

Tags Biden biden environmental policy gas prices oil and gas leases oil prices Russia Saudi Arabia–United States relations Vladimir Putin

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