Oil donors flock to Trump as Biden hardens climate stance

Source: By James Osborne, Houston Chronicle • Posted: Monday, August 3, 2020

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, speaks in Wilmington, Del. on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. Biden announced a new plan to spend $2 trillion over four years to significantly escalate the use of clean energy in the transportation, electricity and building sectors, part of a suite of sweeping proposals designed to create economic opportunities and build infrastructure while also tackling climate change. (Kriston Jae Bethel/The New York Times)
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, speaks in Wilmington, Del. on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. Biden announced a new plan to spend $2 trillion over four years to significantly escalate the use of clean energy in the transportation, electricity and building sectors, part of a suite of sweeping Photo: KRISTON JAE BETHEL, STR / NYT

WASHINGTON – With former Vice President Joe Biden leading most polls to be the next president of the United States, oil lobbyists have been careful to focus on their common ground with the Democratic nominee.

Behind the scenes, however, oil executives are writing checks to President Donald Trump with greater zeal than they did four years ago, as Biden campaigns on a climate plan that seeks to eliminate carbon emissions by mid-century.

The oil and gas sector has given Trump $935,000 in campaign donations as of July 21, more than three times what they have given Biden, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a think tank that tracks corporate contributions and lobbying. That is a sharp shift from four years ago when Trump collected $1.2 million in donations from the industry, only $200,000 – or 17 percent – more than Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

As the incumbent, Trump might seem a surer bet for companies than he was as a political outsider four years ago. At the same time, Biden’s recent climate stance is very different from Clinton’s, who as secretary of state had promoted the U.S. fracking industry overseas – Biden has sworn off donations from the oil and gas sector, though through loopholes executives are still giving.

“The Democrats are further left on energy issues now than they were in 2016,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant in Austin. “Biden left to his own devices is probably more moderate on these issues, but the party is not going to let him do that. He’s under a lot of pressure from the left.”

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And Trump is playing directly to oil executives’ fears about the Democrats increasing activism on climate change.

During an appearance last week at an oil drilling operation in Midland owned by one of his donors, Trump played up his differences with his opponent on climate and described a “far-left assault on American energy workers.”

“No fracking, no drilling, no oil,” he said. “I don’t think Biden is going to do too well in Texas.”

While Biden has so far resisted calls to ban fracking, as former candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have proposed, his climate plan represents a dramatic shift from the current system of energy production.

Under his $2 trillion plan, the United States would shift drastically towards cleaner energy sources, with Biden calling for an end to new oil and gas leasing on federal lands, the electricity grid to be emissions-free within 15 years and massive investments in wind, solar and electric cars.

All in all, it spells trouble for a U.S. energy sector, which despite recent declines in emissions remains hugely dependent on fossil fuels.

“This is a very pivotal election for the oil and gas industry. A Democratic victory could be the sounding of a death knell for the oil and gas industry as we know it,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “The energy industry has realized they have very little to gain by playing both sides and working with the Biden administration.”

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Long considered more moderate on climate change, Biden has come under pressure from rising liberal stars like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., whose Green New Deal aims to get the U.S. energy sector to zero emissions by the end of this decade.

After taken criticism early in his campaign for not endorsing the Green New Deal, as many other Democratic candidates did, Biden’s new climate plan has won over some of his former critics, with everyone from the Sierra Club to labor unions endorsing his plan.

And with provisions for spending on carbon capture that would enable the use of fossil fuels without pumping carbon into the atmosphere, there’s even something for oil lobbyists to like.

“He’s backed off a fracking ban and wants to make investments in carbon capture, which we think is going to be an important component for a cleaner climate and America’s energy future, so we were encouraged,” said Mike Sommers, president of the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s largest trade group. “On the other hand, there’s a lot of things in that plan we have significant objection to.”

Outside Washington, Biden’s more aggressive climate stance is inciting many in the oil sector to do whatever they can to help Trump get reelected.

Cody Campbell, the co-owner of Double Eagle Energy, who along with his partner has donated almost $74,000 to Trump’s campaign, told a Midland television station that the president, “really does protect us from a lot that comes down from Washington.”

“We are really fortunate to have him in that position. We don’t need the federal government in our business and he’s done a great job of keeping them away from us,” he said.

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Still, not everyone in the oil and gas industry is so enamored of Trump, whose trade war with China has not only raised steel prices for pipelines but has made trade more difficult with the world’s second-largest economy.

One of the biggest losers in that trade war is the U.S. liquefied natural gas industry, which has been building export facilities up and down the Gulf Coast, at least in part of expectations China would buy its gas.

“I don’t know how much more problematic commercially speaking a Biden administration would be than a Trump administration,” said Charlie Riedl, executive director of the trade group Center for Liquefied Natural Gas. “Trump has been very supportive of the industry, but at the same time under his administration we’ve also started a trade war with the largest potential buyer of U.S. LNG.”

For now though, oil donors are expected to keep writing their checks to Trump.

With three months to go until election day, Biden is leading in most every national poll – in some cases by double digits. And that is reason for oil executives to be worried, Mackowiak said.

“I would say your lunch money is about to get stolen,” he said of Republican oil donors, if Biden is elected. “They’re going to push to do as much as possible.”

james.osborne@chron.com