On Tuesday, Democratic presidential hopeful and former vice president Joe Biden released his highly anticipated plan to address climate change. Billed as a “revolution,” it amounts an aggressive ‘all of the above’ strategy that draws from the Green New Deal while allowing for the continued production and development of natural gas and natural gas infrastructure at home and abroad.
Speculation about the plan had been swirling since Reuters reported early last month that Biden was seeking a “middle ground” on climate change—a claim his campaign denied. The response to that news from progressives was swift and angry. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both presidential contenders, seized on the story to draw immediate contrast with Biden.
But with the $1.7 trillion package—dubbed the Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice—now released, the heat seems to have tapered off a bit—though news outlets were quick to point out that several lines contained within were lifted from other organizations, calling to mind the plagiarism scandal that ended Biden’s 1988 presidential campaign. Much of the coverage of the plan, however, focused on the ambitious nature of its proposals. Senior Biden adviser Symone D. Sanders, seemingly enjoying the moment, took a shot at Reuters, tweeting, “Middle ground? I think not.”
It is true that Biden appears to have taken the criticism he’s received in the past few weeks to heart. Biden’s plan calls for the U.S. to be emission-free by 2050—an aim it will achieve through an as of yet unspecified enforcement mechanism to be created by Congress. It also includes a $400 billion investment in green energy research, a day one ban on fossil fuel permits on public land, an end to fossil fuel subsidies, recommitting to the Paris Agreement, exporting clean energy technology abroad, and protecting coal miners as the country goes green. And of course, Biden intends to pay for it all by reversing the GOP’s recent tax cuts.
The former VP even went the extra step of swearing off money from fossil fuel corporations and executives, though Sludge recently reported that his campaign is being informally advised on climate change by Heather Zichal, “who recently occupied a lucrative seat on the board of the Texas-based liquefied natural gas (LNG) company Cheniere Energy.”
Despite its big goals, the Biden climate plan has serious weaknesses. It leaves wide open a lane for natural gas. Not only does it lack a ban on fracking, but there’s also language suggesting the practice could expand under a Biden administration. That language is located quite literally in the first substantive section, which outlines promised executive actions.
“On day one, Biden will use the full authority of the executive branch to make progress and significantly reduce emissions,” it reads. “Biden recognizes we must go further, faster, and more aggressively than ever before by: Requiring aggressive methane pollution limits for new and existing oil and gas operations.”
It seems clear that natural gas is treated as a cleaner-burning transition fuel, which casts a dubious light on the plan’s promise to “re-claim the mantle as the world’s clean energy leader and top exporter.” Democrats have been pushing the gospel of natural gas since the Obama years. In April, the Democratic House overwhelmingly voted for a bill allocating $580 million in federal funding to help Europe transition its energy economy by building natural gas infrastructure.
This shortcoming of Biden’s plan did not go unnoticed by environmental groups and activists.
Filmmaker Josh Fox, whose 2010 documentary, “Gasland,” was nominated for an Academy Award, told Paste in an email that he has grave concerns with the plans apparent openness to natural gas given Biden’s record on the issue.
“That Joe Biden has a climate change plan is encouraging, especially after his and Barack Obama’s administration oversaw the largest expansion of fossil fuel drilling and fracking in recent memory,” he explained. “But Biden’s fracked gas obsessed past and present is apparently going full bore into the future, as fracking and, more importantly, fracked gas power plants will be expanded and extended for decades in his current plan.”
Fox, who is backing Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2020 due to his calls for a total ban on fracking, added that despite its bells and whistles, the Biden plan could actually represent a step in the wrong direction.
“Fracked gas, because it leaks so much methane, which is both an undercounted and unsolvable problem, is actually worse for the climate than even horrible old coal,” he explained. “So Biden advocating for more fracked gas is actually a step backward…The Dems can’t have it both ways, they can’t act on climate and convert our economy to fracked gas. It is either fracked gas or the planet.”
Fox is not the only climate activist concerned. Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, North America director of the green advocacy group 350.org, told Common Dreams that “[w]hile his plan is a start, it falls short of outlining a clear course to move the U.S. off of fossil fuels in our lifetimes and onto 100 percent renewables.”
“It’s concerning that Biden’s plan embraces demonstrably false solutions including nuclear power, harmful biofuels, and boondoggle carbon capture and natural gas infrastructure that will continue to lock us into fossil fuel dependence with investments that harm the communities that already live in areas where the impacts are being felt,” she explained.
Still, some environmentalists took heart in what they framed as concessions made by the former VP to the cause. “Today’s climate plan from Joe Biden is the latest recognition that climate change is the defining issue of the 2020 election,” David Turnbull, strategic communications director for Oil Change U.S., told Common Dreams.
A recent analysis conducted by Australian think-tank Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration found that climate change poses “a near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilization.” The paper made reference to the highly publicized October report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change October, warning that the world had just over a decade to make unprecedented, radical changes to its energy systems in order to keep global warming to 1.5°C relative to pre-industrial levels. Any higher, the panel explained, would result in global catastrophe. Breakthrough noted that warming milestones are likely to be reached faster than expected.
“Another example is the recent IPCC 1.5°C report, which projected that warming would continue at the current rate of ~0.2°C per decade and reach the 1.5°C mark around 2040,” it reads. “However the 1.5°C boundary is likely to be passed in half that time, around 2030, and the 2°C boundary around 2045, due to accelerating anthropogenic emissions, decreased aerosol loading and changing ocean circulation conditions.”
Joe Biden is currently a presumed front-runner in the 2020 Democratic presidential race, leading the pack in terms of endorsements and early poll numbers.