Joe Biden and the oil industry “transition”: The controversy, explained

At the second and final 2020 presidential debate on Thursday, when asked by President Donald Trump if he would “close down the oil industry,” former Vice President Joe Biden said that he intends to “transition away from the oil industry, yes.” Republicans are working furiously to make this supposed admission into a scandal, hoping it will get Biden in hot water with oil-state Dems and swing voters and sow division in the party. The right sees energy as a key wedge issue as the election approaches.

Trump himself put it in the most dramatic terms:

After the last debate, Republicans hoped Biden’s refusal to ban fracking would get him in trouble with the climate left. That didn’t go anywhere, and my guess is that this gambit won’t either. So far, a few oil-state Dems have distanced themselves, oil companies have expressed “concern, not alarm,” and most everyone else seems distracted by a virus that is setting new case records and infecting White House staff.

However the politics play out in this instance, it’s important to consider the underlying dynamic of these recent energy disputes. It’s an extremely familiar dynamic that finally seems, in fits and starts, to be working in Democrats’ favor.

Let’s begin with a little armchair political science.

Americans want reform as long as it doesn’t negatively affect them

Social science suggests that most people, even most politically active people, don’t have particularly well-considered or coherent views on public policy issues. They vote based on identities and social affinities. Their opinions on issues are easily swayed by elite cues or the phrasing of poll questions.

In my experience, the one rule that reliably governs public issue polling is that the public likes things that sound good and doesn’t like things that sound bad.

If you poll a health care system that covers everything, with no copays and free choice of doctors, it does well. If you poll tax increases to pay for other people’s health care, it does poorly.

If you poll cleaner energy or less pollution, it does well. If you poll gasoline prices rising and fossil fuel workers losing jobs, it does poorly.

When polled on individual progressive policy goals, Americans tend to respond positively. Universal health care and clean energy sound good. When polled on ideological abstractions like “taxes” and “big government,” they tend to respond negatively. Giving up money to some distant bureaucracy sounds bad.

YPCCC

This is why there’s an unending argument over whether America is or isn’t a “center-right nation” — it depends on how you ask America. More or less everyone wants to improve the collective welfare, but not at their own expense. Depending on how they are phrased, these kinds of questions don’t so much uncover preexisting opinions as they guide and shape opinion formation. Trigger thoughts of things getting better, you’ll get good poll results; trigger thoughts of sacrifice, privation, or unfair burdens, you’ll get bad poll results.

Democratic politics isn’t much different. Reformers pushing for change guide attention to the collective good that will come of it. Reactionaries pushing against change guide attention to the risks and dangers.

These are not, unfortunately, parallel endeavors. Asking people to imagine an alternative future calls upon their thinking and imagination — their frontal cortex. Asking people to fear change calls upon something much deeper and older, their brainstem sense that it’s a dangerous world, they’re lucky to have what they have, and any disruption threatens it. The latter, when invoked, tends to drown out the former. That’s why progressive change is so difficult to muster and so easy to reverse.

But that’s the game in a democracy: changes that can improve collective circumstances versus the fear of personal loss.

Making the clean energy transition seem scary

This brings us back to Biden and energy. The core Republican approach, which they understand at a gut level even if there is no particular strategic intelligence at work in the Trump era, is to make change seem scary. They need to make Biden’s climate plan seem abrupt, alien, and threatening. That’s why they have resolutely ignored all the actual policies involved in the Green New Deal and instead made it a boogeyman, a repository for every conservative fear. They’re going to take your hamburgers and your SUV!

That’s why Republicans are so delighted to make a fracking ban — a policy that no president can pass and no Congress would pass — the center of discussion. And that’s why they are delighted when Biden says he will transition away from oil. These changes sound sudden and disruptive; they draw attention to what will be lost, not to what will take its place. They define a playing field favorable to Republicans.

There’s an element of play-acting to all this. For all the hue and cry about his gaffes, Biden’s climate policies are articulated quite clearly on his website. (No manned outpost on the moon, sadly.) He plans to ramp up clean energy and electrification while ensuring that affected communities, including fossil fuel communities, are taken care of through investments in infrastructure, clean energy projects, education, job transition, and other kinds of assistance.

Over time, clean energy will come to dominate the electricity sector (where Biden has targeted 100 percent net-zero by 2035) and from there it will expand to the rest of the economy (where Biden has targeted 100 percent net-zero by 2050). By 2035, coal will disappear, and by 2050, the US oil and gas sector will radically shrink. It’s just carbon math.

Some fossil fuels may survive at the margins to fill in the gaps in large electricity systems, attached to carbon capture and storage systems, or for some industrial applications or plastics. And it may be that some oil and gas companies are successful at pivoting away from their core products to clean energy (ahem, geothermal).

Sauerlach Geothermal Plant, a binary geothermal power plant in Munich, Germany.
Geothermal: All the fun of digging with none of the oil.
Tim Latimer

But the oil and gas industry as Americans know it, as a major source of jobs and profits, is going away in coming decades. It has to — it produces lots of carbon and carbon is frying the planet. Many oil and gas companies, especially in Europe, have acknowledged this inescapable reality and begun to transform themselves.

So when Biden says his plan will have the US “transition away from the oil industry,” he’s not saying something radical, unexpected, or mysterious. Any serious climate plan must do the same. It wouldn’t be a climate plan if it didn’t (no matter how many trees it planted).

But Biden was also being entirely accurate when he said to reporters later, “we’re not getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time.” And he was being entirely accurate when he said that he will not ban fracking.

These are not contradictory comments. The latter are not “walking back” the former, despite what reporters (goosed on by Republicans) project onto them. It’s not that hard to understand: Biden’s plan will gradually transition the US economy to clean energy, and while it’s happening, ensure that those who are negatively impacted receive assistance and new employment opportunities. Justice — for fossil fuel workers and other vulnerable communities — is at the heart of the new Democratic consensus on climate policy.

Biden needs room to maneuver

When speaking to the left, Biden emphasizes the transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy, and the environmental benefits; when speaking to audiences that contain persuadable voters in swing states (some of whom work in, or have family members who work in, fossil fuels), he emphasizes the gradual, carefully staged nature of the transition, and the economic/jobs benefits.

But in all cases, he’s referring to the same plan — which is, again, right there on his website.

As usual, the media is playing along with Republican efforts to sow confusion about this, playing on Biden’s penchant for garbling his messaging, as with this CNN “fact-check” that pretends Biden’s written plan carries no more weight than one infelicitous phrase in a debate.

Republicans will lie about Biden’s plan and the mainstream media will search for something they can ding Biden for, to “balance” all the negative coverage Trump attracts — but Democrats would be goofy to play along.

Instead of distancing themselves, oil-state Democrats could take the opportunity to defend the massive infrastructure and job investments contained in the plan, targeted at rural, poor, and fossil fuel communities. They could tell their constituents the truth about the long-term viability of fossil fuels, unlike Republicans in Appalachia and Wyoming, who have lied to their constituents about it until their economies have run headlong into disaster.

As for the left, as usual, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is taking the smart line:

She is positioning herself to the left of Biden on fracking, a signal to moderates that Biden has not been “captured by the left,” but she’s also emphasizing the need to get him elected, a signal to the left that it’s important to get on board.

AOC understands what are, to my mind, the two lessons progressive climate reformers can draw from this episode.

The broad lesson is that making change is often less about convincing people that good goals are good — Americans are already convinced that fighting climate change and expanding clean energy are good — than it is about convincing them that change won’t leave them behind, that they have a place and a stake in it.

In practical terms, that might mean less talk about the Earth and children and more about industrial policy and what it can do to foster specific industries that will employ specific people in specific regions of the country. It means talking about how a transition to clean energy will create well-paying jobs in every US zip code and save every US homeowner between $1,000 and $2,000 a year. It means less talk about things that will be banned or taken away and more about things that will be created or improved. The Green New Deal was conceived, in part, to push just such a shift in emphasis, to envision climate policy as a generative, not merely oppositional, project.

Climate reformers have the wind at their back. There’s never been a broader consensus that climate change is dangerous and action is needed. What remains is painting a richer picture of the world that action can help create.

In the meantime, the more specific lesson for climate advocates is that, in the home stretch of this election, Biden needs room to maneuver. His election depends on the whims of a few marginal voters in a few swing states, some of them living in places where fossil fuel production has unusually high salience. He needs votes from union households that do some of the very work he’s talking about phasing out.

He needs to reassure them that the clean energy transition will not be abrupt and destructive; nothing will be banned or shut down overnight. It will unfold gradually, and as it does, new investments will reach their communities and new industries will rise to make use of their skills.

The transition will not come at their expense or leave them behind. They have a place in it.

This inclusiveness is a foundational part of Biden’s plan and, more broadly, core to the spirit of the Green New Deal and the recent Democratic alignment on climate policy. It would immeasurably aid public understanding if more people explained that vision of a managed, inclusive transition and fewer nitpicked Biden’s latest attempt to articulate it.

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