On Wednesday, a task force made up of supporters of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign (RIP) and presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden sent 110 pages of policy recommendations to the Democratic National Committee for its consideration drafting the national platform. The document includes 14 pages of climate proposals. There’s a lot to like in those 14 pages, including language to strengthen adherence to Indigenous treaty rights, ensure jobs in the renewable energy sector are unionized, and reduce emissions from American agriculture.
But the recommendations still leave Biden and national Democrats with no plan to phase out U.S. fossil fuel production, which the world’s leading climate scientists have made it clear is long overdue. It’s a huge gap that needs filling.
“The fossil fuel supply piece and the pieces to address fossil energy production were ... woefully insufficient,” Collin Rees, a campaigner with Oil Change U.S., told Earther.
On energy, the plan does make big improvements on Biden’s previous climate plan. Whereas the original platform aimed to eliminate carbon emissions from the electricity sector by 2050, the new proposal puts the goalpost at 2035. But not all fossil fuel extraction goes toward the grid. Mitch Jones, climate and energy program director at Food and Water Watch, pointed out that plastics is one growth area for the fossil fuel industry.
“So it’s not enough to say, we’re going to build a bunch of solar panels and a bunch of wind turbines,” he told Earther. “You have to say we’re going to stop producing fossil fuels.”
The plan does include some language that could limit emissions from fossil fuel production, including repealing fossil fuel subsidies and reducing methane pollution. But it doesn’t say anything about ending new leases for oil and gas producers. And though fracking is a major source of methane emissions, it doesn’t include the pledge Biden made earlier in his campaign to end new fracking leases for public lands, let alone call to ban fracking outright, something Sanders and his task force appointee Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez championed in a bill earlier this year (fellow Sanders appointee Varshini Prakash heads the Sunrise Movement, which supports the legislation as well).
Instead, the proposal calls for the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to help curb greenhouse gas pollution. While many of the scenarios scientists have modeled to keep warming at or below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) involve CCS, counting on it as a central way to lower carbon emissions is dangerous. There’s also no evidence that that technology actually works at scale. It’s at best an unproven strategy to curb greenhouse gases, and at worst a way to provide cover to corporations looking to make false commitments to reducing emissions without curbing oil and gas extraction. RL Miller, founder of the political action committee Climate Hawks Vote who was recently elected to the Democratic National Committee, told Earther, “CCS [is] smoke and mirrors.”
The plan is also silent on what to do about both fossil fuel exports and imports. For instance, it makes no mention of reinstating the crude oil export ban (lifted in the waning days of the Obama administration). Doing so would significantly reduce global carbon emissions. And though it calls for an end to U.S. financing for coal projects overseas, it doesn’t do the same for foreign oil and gas projects.
“On financing, the plan ... is significantly weaker than the language in Biden’s pre-existing plan,” said Rees. “That plan talks about ending coal finance, but also talks about not financing dirty energy, in general, and talks about ending all export finance subsidies for all high carbon projects.”
Ending coal financing would be an improvement on the Trump administration’s environmental policy, but would essentially just revert back to the Obama-administration’s approach, which fell far short of meeting climate scientists’ proposed goals for carbon reduction.
In that light, the plan’s bright spot on bringing the electricity sector’s emissions to zero by 2035 could end up being a mirage. The plan focuses on the number of solar panels and wind turbines to install in five years (Miller noted it even includes Hillary Clinton’s 2016 call for installing 500 million solar panels), but doesn’t specify how much power they’ll generate. That could leave the U.S. banking on CCS or continuing its relationship with fossil fuels.
Without much stronger regulations to ensure the U.S. curbs its fossil fuel extraction and helps to do the same abroad, environmental activists will have to turn to local governments and the courts to push for action. As evidenced by this week’s major wins in the fight to shut down pipelines, those venues can bring success. But those case-by-case battles can’t replace a strong federal plan to halt fossil fuel extraction and clean up the grid as quickly as possible.