The trial balloon that the Biden campaign floated last week — the one about how he wanted a “middle ground” climate policy — set off the closest thing to a scuffle the Democratic primary field has seen yet, with one rival after another insisting that there was no middle ground to be had, only (as the author and activist Naomi Klein put it) “sinking ground, burning ground, churning ground.”
Still, we may have reason to be thankful to Biden’s team, for it’s possible that they’ve brought into the open the semi-secret internal Democratic debate on climate. It’s not actually about the danger of global warming, which thankfully everyone more or less agrees on. It’s actually about natural gas.
Here’s a short history lesson: President Obama came to office in 2008 with a dead-in-the-water national economy, a commitment to reducing carbon emissions, and a rapidly expanding new technology: fracking for natural gas.
That technology helped restart economic growth, and because when you burn natural gas it gives off less carbon than coal it also seemed to address climate change. It was, in Washington parlance, a win-win, even for the oil companies, who rapidly expanded their shale gas portfolios. Year after year, Obama boasted about the natural gas surge in his State of the Union addresses. Biden has followed right along.
Last week in Iowa he said, “the United States is soon going to be the largest producer of energy of any nation in the world by the end of the 2020s. My Lord, what are we so afraid of?”
That’s a question with some relatively easy answers.
First, it turned out that fracking disrupted communities, polluted water and damaged people’s health — that’s why even moderates like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo moved to ban it. (And why it’s controversial in key swing states like Ohio, where it’s caused earthquakes, and Pennsylvania, where it’s turned drinking water foul.)
Second, atmospheric chemists began monitoring the degree to which fracking operations were leaking methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a heat-trapping gas too, and it turned out that it was escaping in quantities large enough to nullify natural gas’s carbon advantage.
Indeed, Dan Lashof, now the head of the World Resources Institute, put together a series of graphs illustrating that during the Obama years total greenhouse gases had barely budged. Yes, carbon dioxide emissions had fallen as coal plants closed down and gas plants opened up. But methane emissions had gone up enough to compensate. Depending on how you count methane’s heat-trapping capacity, it’s possible total emissions actually increased during the Obama/Biden years.
There was another argument for natural gas in 2008, which was that we had no real alternative. Renewable energy was too expensive, and the sun went down at night — it couldn’t carry the load.
But if that was true then, it isn’t true now: the engineers have done their job, and the price of a solar panel has fallen 90 percent in the last decade. Sun and wind are now the cheapest way to produce electrons across most of the planet, and the batteries to store that energy are on the same plummeting cost curve. Bloomberg’s New Energy team estimated in a recent survey that solar plus batteries is now cheaper than natural gas, even without charging the fossil fuel anything for the climate damage it does.
So why is Biden’s team still pushing the 2008 answer in 2019, when the facts have changed so decisively? (And Biden is not alone. Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperNY Democrat tests positive for COVID-19 in latest House breakthrough case Florida Democrat becomes latest breakthrough COVID-19 case in House Wicker says he's recovered from coronavirus MORE likes fracking so much he once went on TV to drink fracking fluid.)
Some of it is self-interest: the staffer quoted in the “middle ground” piece, Heather Zichal, ran the Obama fracking effort, and then left to earn a million dollars on the board of the country’s biggest gas exporter, before returning to the Biden campaign. A well-oiled revolving door.
And some of it is politics: Biden apparently hopes he can win the votes of the building trades unions, who like building pipelines. This seems unlikely — the day after the first great women’s march on Washington, Trump hosted the leaders of the pipeline unions in the Oval Office, where they pledged fealty. As the leader of the Laborer’s Union put it, “it is finally beginning to feel like a new day for America’s working class.” While the rest of labor was mourning the attack on everything unions had stood for, these guys were celebrating.
The irony, of course, is that there are far more jobs to be had making the renewable energy transition. That's why much of the rest of organized labor has come out for the Green New Deal plans. And even if you could win some percentage of these pipeline builders back by supporting yet more natural gas infrastructure, it would come at the cost of demoralizing the far vaster demographic that puts climate change as its No. 1 concern: young voters.
It’s possible that Biden can put together a coalition of the old to win the primary, but if he does it will make his task that much harder in a general election fight. Yes they vote, but there’s only so many septuagenarians.
Which is why it’s a good thing Biden’s trial balloon was shot down so thoroughly. He hasn’t released his actual energy plan yet. When he does — and indeed when his competitors release theirs — don’t pay much attention to the flowery rhetoric about climate change. Look to see if they’re still huffing gas.
Bill McKibben is the founder of the global climate campaign 350.org, and served on the platform-writing committee for the DNC in 2016. His new book is the New York Times bestseller “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?”