Democrats use debate to target fossil fuels

Source: By Timothy Cama, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, November 21, 2019

Democratic presidential hopefuls Tom Steyer and Joe Biden briefly clashed during last night’s primary debate over their records and plans to address climate change.

Steyer, a billionaire former hedge fund manager, is polling near the bottom of the 10-candidate pack that qualified for last night’s debate in Atlanta under the Democratic National Committee’s standards.

In a rare moment of direct engagement on climate policy, Steyer went after two of the polling front-runners, former Vice President Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, when talking about his climate change plan.

“I’m the only person on this stage who will say that climate is the No. 1 priority for me,” Steyer said, calling out Biden and Warren by name for not making such a commitment.

“It’s a state of emergency, and I would declare a state of emergency on day one. I would use the emergency powers of the presidency. I know that we have to do this,” said Steyer, whose day one climate emergency promise — which would unlock certain presidential authorities — is the central piece of his climate plan.

Biden called on his experience as vice president and as a senator representing Delaware to argue his climate bona fides.

But he also directly went after Steyer. “I don’t really need kind of a lecture from this, from my friend,” Biden said of Steyer.

“While I was passing the first climate change bill … while I managed the $90 billion recovery plan, investing more money in infrastructure that relates to clean energy than anytime we’ve ever done it, my friend was producing more coal mines and produced more coal around the world, according to the press, than all of Great Britain produces,” he continued.

Biden’s comments touched on Steyer’s past as the founder and head of the hedge fund Farallon Capital Management, which financed numerous international coal mines, among other ventures.

Steyer stepped down from the company in 2012 and has spent millions of dollars since on Democratic causes such as supporting candidates and advocating for President Trump’s impeachment.

Steyer sought to defend himself and focus on his advocacy and spending since leaving Farallon.

“I came to the conclusion over 10 years ago that climate was the absolute problem of our society and was the unintended consequence of our whole country being based on fossil fuels,” said Steyer.

“Everybody in this room has lived in an economy based on fossil fuels, and we all have to come to the same conclusion that I came to over a decade ago,” he said, arguing that declaring a climate emergency is necessary because Congress has been unable to pass significant climate legislation.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) got into the conversation, pointing to legislation he proposed in Congress to declare climate change an emergency. The legislation would not itself change any policies.

“What we have got to do tonight, and I will do as president, is to tell the fossil fuel industry that their short-term profits are not more important than the future of this planet,” Sanders said.

He then pivoted to accusing fossil fuel companies of criminal activity. “The fossil fuel industry is probably criminally liable, because they have lied, and lied, and lied when they had the evidence that their carbon products were destroying the planet,” he said, “and maybe we should think about prosecuting them, as well.”

As in most past Democratic debates in the 2020 election season, climate change got a small portion of the debate time — less than 10 minutes in an event that stretched more than two hours.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii focused her climate commentary on unity. “It is the hyperpartisanship in Washington, unfortunately, that has created this gridlock that has stood in the way of the kinds of progress that I would bring about as president,” she said.

She quickly added that she would work on “transitioning our country off of fossil fuels and ending the nearly $30 billion in subsidies that we as taxpayers are currently giving to the fossil fuel industry, instead investing in a green renewable energy economy that leads us into the 21st century with good-paying jobs, a sustainable economy, investing in infrastructure and transitioning our agriculture.”

Other candidates found ways to insert climate change or energy into answers to questions.

Sanders used climate as an example of the need for Democrats to have an affirmative agenda, not just opposing Trump.

“When you talk about the climate crisis, the overwhelming majority of the American people know that it is real, they know we have to take on the fossil fuel industry, they know we have to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy,” he said.

Warren brought up climate in her closing statement, saying that if “we want to make real progress on climate, then we have to start by attacking the corruption that gives the oil industry and other fossil fuel industries a stranglehold over this country.”

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., used an agriculture question to plug his plan to incentivize farmers to use sustainable practices and crops that sequester carbon.

But Buttigieg, who frequently uses his Midwestern roots in a bid to appeal to rural interests, also stood out by mentioning the federal renewable fuel standard and the controversial waivers that the Trump administration has granted to some refineries to exempt them from its requirements to blend biofuels into traditional fossil fuels.

“In a lot of parts of this country, the worst thing [for farmers] is these so-called small refinery waivers, which is killing those involved in ethanol,” he remarked.