What Lester Holt won’t ask Clinton and Trump — but should

Source: Jennifer Yachnin, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, September 26, 2016

It’s rare for advocates for the fossil fuel industry and environmentalists to find common ground.

But ahead of the first presidential debate tonight, there’s one area both sides agree on: It sure would be nice if NBC News anchor Lester Holt raised a question, or several, about energy policy.

Yet if history is any guide, it’s unlikely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and GOP presidential standard-bearer Donald Trump will be asked to address either energy or climate policies in the first of their three 90-minute debates.

The Commission on Presidential Debates last week released a list of three “topics” for tonight’s showdown at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., with two 15-minute segments allotted each to “America’s Direction,” “Achieving Prosperity” and “Securing America.” It did not offer any other information about the selected subject areas.

The lack of an energy-specific heading doesn’t mean the candidates cannot raise those policies on their own — President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney did so repeatedly in their first matchup in Denver in the 2012 election, sparring on tax benefits to the oil and gas industry and domestic production.

But just in case Holt still needs some inspiration for his grilling of the nominees tonight, E&E Daily polled a variety of organizations and individuals for the policy questions they’d most like to see asked.

And if Holt can’t use these questions tonight, two additional presidential debates are set for October, as well as the vice presidential debate Oct. 4.

Clean Power Plan

National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich notes that three of the four presidential contest debates — other than tonight’s — will take place in coal country: Virginia, Missouri and Nevada. He urged moderators to address the future of coal-fired power plants.

“Given the importance of affordable and reliable electricity made possible through coal mining, and our economy’s reliance on minerals and metals to build infrastructure and sustain high-wage employment, the debates should probe into whether candidates’ positions address the realities faced by working Americans,” Popovich said in a memorandum late last week.

In a statement to E&E Daily, Popovich added that “no issue more clearly divides the two candidates than coal, and no policy matters more to the outcome than the Clean Power Plan.”

Oral arguments in the lawsuit challenging U.S. EPA’s regulatory effort to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants is set to take place in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit tomorrow (Greenwire, Sept. 22).

The presidential nominees have divided along partisan lines on the Clean Power Plan, with Clinton vowing to carry on the Obama administration’s policies while Trump has promised to repeal the effort if elected to the White House.

Popovich joked: “Coal could be the new Monday Night Football.”

Keep it in the ground?

Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, said she’d like to see the candidates address a variety of issues — from their stance on hydraulic fracturing to regulatory reforms — as well as respond to an inquiry on the “keep it in the ground” movement that opposes all fossil fuel production.

Noting that America produces more than 80 percent of its energy supply from traditional fuels, Sgamma said candidates should be asked: “Do you think there should be responsible production of energy on public lands, or should it all be stopped as many environmental groups want?”

Trump has repeatedly endorsed expanded production on federal public lands if elected, vowing it would make “American wealthy again” as well as proposing to use oil exports to pay for new infrastructure (E&E Daily, May 27).

During a campaign stop in February, Clinton told an activist from the environmental group 350 Action that she would support a ban on fossil fuel production on public lands. But Clinton later clarified that applied only to existing efforts by the Obama administration, which implemented a three-year moratorium on new federal coal leases earlier this year (E&ENews PM, Feb. 5).

Similarly, American Petroleum Institute spokesman Reid Porter said his organization would like to see candidates discuss the importance of continued domestic oil and natural gas production.

“Energy is our candidate. Our focus is to make sure all candidates understand that the United States is leading the world in oil and gas production and reducing carbon emissions, which are near 20-year lows,” Porter said.

He later added: “We are hopeful for more robust discussion amongst the candidates during the presidential and vice presidential debates about how to continue America’s success and prepare for the nation’s long-term energy needs, because we know it’s important to American voters.”

Public lands

Aaron Weiss of the Center for Western Priorities said his organization would like to see candidates asked about their stance on whether federal public lands should be retained or turned over to state control. That sentiment was echoed by Backcountry Hunters & Anglers as well as the National Wildlife Federation.

Weiss added the question should be put in context of the current federal trial in Portland, Ore., over the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year (Greenwire, Sept. 21).

“Ammon and Ryan Bundy are currently on trial for taking over a wildlife refuge in Oregon. Their father, Cliven, will go on trial next year for leading a standoff with law enforcement in 2014. How would you, as president, deal with people who claim public lands should be put into private hands?” Weiss said candidates should be asked.

But he added that the Center for Western Priorities remains optimistic that its ideal question — or at least a version of it — will come up in one of the debates, likely the final matchup in Nevada, where public lands are often part of political campaigns.

“We’ve seen public lands become an issue in many races across the West this year. The presidential candidates should have a chance to weigh in on a national stage,” Weiss said.

In a letter to the National Wildlife Federation and other conservation and sportsmen’s groups earlier this month, Clinton pledged that “public lands must stay in public hands” (E&E Daily, Sept. 8).

Clinton has previously outlined a “great outdoors” platform that also included policies aimed at conserving parks, land and water, including a proposal to establish an “American Parks Trust Fund” of $1.8 billion to acquire new land as well as address infrastructure needs and a backlog of maintenance in national parks.

Although the Republican Party endorsed the wholesale disposal of federal public lands in its platform this year, Trump discussed that idea in the primary, arguing states could sell off the land in times of financial trouble (E&E Daily, July 12). Late last week his son Donald Trump Jr., an avid sportsman, pledged that his father would not sell off public lands (E&ENews PM, Sept. 23).

But more recently the elder Trump has criticized the “draconian rule” of the Bureau of Land Management and refused to discuss his position on the transfer of public lands in an interview with a Denver television station last month (Greenwire, Aug. 1).

“We’d like to hear the candidates talk about keeping America’s federal public lands in public hands by fending off attacks from extremists who’d like to sell our wildlife refuges and national parks,” said NWF President and CEO Collin O’Mara.

Backcountry Hunters & Anglers spokeswoman Katie McKalip said the line of questioning could also extend to quizzing candidates on how best to fund land and wildlife management agencies, and ensure land managers have necessary resources.

Carbon tax

American Energy Alliance spokesman Chris Warren said his organization is optimistic that candidates will address their energy policies when asked about economic development.

But he added that his organization would like to see Clinton asked about her stance on a carbon tax.

Democrats adopted language promoting a price on carbon in the party’s 2016 platform — a position endorsed by supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders but opposed by Clinton’s camp.

“I’d like to see the moderators ask Hillary Clinton about her position on a carbon tax. Her rhetoric and antagonism towards oil, coal and natural gas suggest she’d likely be supportive of a carbon tax, but she seems to have evaded the issue thus far,” Warren said.

Trump himself accused Clinton of supporting a carbon tax at a campaign stop in Pittsburgh last week, even as the Democrat has been careful to distance herself from either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program (ClimateWire, Sept. 23).

AEA, the advocacy arm of the Institute for Energy Research, endorsed Trump’s candidacy earlier this year.

But the eco-right — Republicans who support enacting climate policy — has also called for a question on carbon pricing in the debate.

In an open letter to Holt, RepublicEn’s Chelsea Henderson urged the moderator to skip “uninformative” questions asking whether candidates believe in climate change and focus instead on solutions to address the issue.

“If you turn to the issue, ask the question: can free enterprise solve climate change?” wrote Henderson, who is RepublicEn’s content director and editor of its Climate Eyepublication.

She added: “On the campaign trail, America has heard one candidate debunk climate change while the other defaults to support for status quo solutions. Neither approach is satisfactory. By asking if free enterprise can solve climate change in lieu of defaulting to the same, tired questions that get the same canned responses, you touch on the direction, prosperity, and security of our nation in one fell swoop.”

The eco-right group, which backs a revenue-neutral carbon tax, also urged Holt to ask about the “biggest energy subsidy currently doled out by the U.S. government: the ability to freely dump carbon into the sky without accountability.”

Climate change

While Clinton and Trump’s divisions over whether climate change is occurring are well-known — Clinton endorses scientific theory, while Trump has called global warming both a “hoax” and “bullshit” — many environmentalists said that contrast is significant enough to warrant an inquiry from debate moderators.

“Climate change was ignored by the moderators in the last general election debates, and that can’t happen again,” said EDF Action spokesman Keith Gaby. “Climate impacts are a multitrillion-dollar freight train bearing down the world economy, and we need to know how the candidates plan to address it.”

EDF Action is also running a paid media campaign to urge moderators to raise the subject, with web ads that state: “There were zero climate change questions at the 2012 presidential debates. Is the media in denial?”

In addition, the Environmental Defense Fund urges visitors to its website to send a letter to the quartet of debate moderators — CNN’s Anderson Cooper, ABC News’ Martha Raddatz and Fox News’ Chris Wallace, along with Holt — urging them to raise the issue.

The website also includes 101 individual questions on climate change as suggestions for the moderators.

The League of Conservation Voters similarly unveiled a 100,000-signature petition Friday urging all four moderators to ask questions about climate policy.

The two-week petition drive also included Corporate Accountability International, Daily Kos, Defend Our Future, EDF, Friends of the Earth Action, Media Matters for America, NRDC Action Fund and the Sierra Club.

“Millions of voters will get their information about the presidential candidates from the debates. They entrust you with the responsibility to ensure that they know where the candidates stand on an issue that will affect their health, the economy, our national security — and their children’s and grandchildren’s futures,” the petition states. “We must know where the candidates stand on these issues. Please bring this important issue to the national stage by asking the candidates how they plan to address climate change.”