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Joe Biden’s Sketchy Climate Record

His attempt to take undeserved credit for the Paris Agreement only scratches the surface of his questionable decisions as vice president.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On Super Tuesday, Joe Biden did relatively well with people who cited climate change as their top issue in the election. The former vice president received 34 percent of those climate voters according to Washington Post exit polling, while his competitor Senator Bernie Sanders received just 28 percent. It’s not entirely clear why.

Biden’s climate platform—which would invest $1.7 trillion for the United States to become carbon neutral by 2050—has been graded with a B+ by environmental activist group Greenpeace USA, a 30.5/48 by progressive think tank Data for Progress, and a 75 out of 200 (an F) from the youth-led climate group Sunrise Movement. Altogether, that’s not terrible. But it’s also significantly worse than his competitors.

Sanders’s climate plana $16.3 trillion set of proposals to reach net-zero emissions by 2030 with a Green New Deal—has received an A+, 45/48, and a 183 out of 200 (A), respectively, from the same groups. Sunrise endorsed him. 350 Action, the electoral arm of emissions-curbing advocacy group, endorsed both Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren, who ended her campaign last Thursday and scored just below Sanders on the same scorecards.

Biden and Sanders, the last major candidates standing, were the top performers among climate voters last Tuesday. Young voters—the demographic most concerned with climate, according to Gallup—went overwhelmingly for Sanders, who won 60 percent of voters under 30 that day. But among voters of all ages who ranked climate as their top concern, Biden bested Sanders, albeit in a small sample size. Meanwhile, CNN exit polling suggests Bloomberg and Warren took a combined 40 percent of climate-concerned voters in Massachusetts. In California, their combined performance among those voters outranked Sanders’s, even as he won the state overwhelmingly.

Whom will climate voters in the remaining states—especially those who go to the polls on Tuesday—flock to now? It could make the difference between a revived Sanders campaign or a coronation for Biden.

Biden has an ambiguous record on climate policy, at best. His campaign in general has leaned hard on his time in the Obama administration, and his commitment in particular to the Paris Agreement. Biden has boasted of and been credited with having played a major role in negotiating the global climate pact while serving as vice president in the “Obama-Biden administration,” claiming in the most recent debate that he was able to “convince” Chinese President Xi Jinping that he “should join the international agreement at the Paris Agreement,” a tale he repeated after his big night on Super Tuesday. Though his phrasing was characteristically unclear, Biden appeared to be arguing that he helped initiate bilateral cooperation between the U.S. and China as a prelude to the Paris Agreement negotiations, which was critical to the deal’s success. But none of the six former White House officials interviewed by E&E News last month recall him or his staff playing a significant role in the Paris Agreement’s passage.

The origin of Biden’s claim is a 2013 meeting in which he, according to one aide interviewed by E&E, proposed the idea of the two countries working together ahead of the Paris conference, after which he relayed the Chinese leader’s reported receptiveness to the idea to Obama. During a campaign event in South Carolina, he also claimed to have negotiated the Paris Agreement itself two years later with Deng Xiaoping, the former Chinese premier whose last public appearance was in 1994 and who died in 1997. “One of the things I’m proudest of is getting passed, getting moved, getting in control of the Paris climate accord,” Biden said. “I’m the guy who came back after meeting with Deng Xiaoping and making the case that I believe China will join if we put pressure on them. We got almost 200 nations to join.”

Per the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s list of attendees from the 2015 climate talks, Biden was not present in Paris for the talks that yielded the deal, though he did provide feedback during White House meetings on the issue. As senior state officials haggled in a converted French aircraft hangar over the text of what would become the Paris Climate Agreement, then–Vice President Joe Biden attended the unveiling of a bust of former Vice President Dick Cheney in the U.S. Capitol. It was also during that year’s climate talks that The New York Times published a feature by James Risen detailing Hunter Biden’s involvement with the Ukrainian natural gas firm Burisma.

While the talks continued, Biden traveled to Eastern Europe. It’s a place he visited several times during Obama’s second term, as a cheerleader for natural gas. During an April 2014 trip to Ukraine, Biden unveiled a crisis support package that included enlisting several U.S. government agencies to promote shale gas development, meant to wean Ukraine off Russian gas. American oil and gas companies at the time had also urged lawmakers to ease restrictions on American oil and gas exports, pointing to the potential benefit not just for their own coffers but for aiding Ukraine and undermining Russian dominance in the region. Then–Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz favored easing export restrictions, too, and Obama signed onto an omnibus spending bill that lifted the crude oil export ban in 2015, just days after world leaders celebrated the Paris Agreement.

“For the first time,” Biden bragged during an August 2016 speech in Latvia, “gas from the United States is being used here in Europe. And every country in Europe can now buy that American resource.” He encouraged the leaders of Estonia and Lithuania in efforts to diversify fossil fuel sources as well—specifically citing the importance of gas pipelines linking Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland—and promoted the idea of turning Cyprus into a “global hub for natural gas.”

In May 2016, Biden heaped praise on his longtime adviser Amos Hochstein, the Obama-Biden administration’s special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs:

Amos Hochstein has over the last seven years educated me, and along with Ernie Moniz, is one of the brightest guys I’ve ever known in my life—literally educated me. I’m serious—educated me on energy issues which I claimed no expertise when I got here. I still don’t claim an expertise, but at least I have a working knowledge of what is needed. Amos and I have traveled all over the world from working on the eastern Mediterranean and the gas fields, to pipelines coming out of Eurasia, et cetera. And I want to thank him for the great job he did here.

Having served as the assistant secretary of State for Energy Resources and headed the pro-fracking Global Shale Gas Initiative, later called the Unconventional Gas Technical Engagement Program, Hochstein then left government and ended up at the natural gas company Tellurian, where he is now executive vice president of LNG marketing.

While far less carbon-intensive than coal, fracked fuel is a massive source of air and groundwater pollution, which has led to outright bans in New York state and elsewhere. It also produces prodigious amounts of methane—a greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide, responsible for an estimated 25 percent of global warming. Methane emissions from U.S. oil and gas may be as much as 60 percent larger than official U.S. government estimates, and fracking is extraordinarily emissions-intensive along its entire supply chain.

A related danger of continued natural gas development is what’s known as infrastructure lock-in. Contracts for building pipelines or gas-fired power plants can last for decades at a time. So even if some amount of natural gas might look attractive to extract in the short term as an alternative to coal, companies could lose billions’ worth of investments under any attempt to phase out fossil fuels along a science-based timeline—something they likely won’t do without a firm policy push. A report from the UN Environment Program last year found that such infrastructure investments could put fossil fuel companies on track to produce 43 percent more oil and 47 percent more gas by 2040 than is consistent with capping warming at two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), per the Paris Agreement goals. For U.S. shale-field drillers, easing export restrictions helped to make much of this new development economical.

The Biden campaign, which did not respond to a request for comment for this piece, signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge and states, on its website, that the campaign “will not accept contributions from oil, gas and coal corporations or executives.” But it has maintained ties to oil and gas companies—albeit indirectly. Heather Zichal, a former top Obama aide in the Domestic Policy Council, has served as a climate adviser for the Biden campaign this cycle. After leaving the White House, she became a board member of Cheniere Energy, the first company to export natural gas from U.S. shores after the Obama administration loosened restrictions in 2013; she has since left the board and divested her shares. During Zichal’s time in the last administration, she headed an interagency working group, established via executive order in 2012, to encourage the development of unconventional oil and gas; it cleared the way for Shell to drill offshore in the Arctic. During DNC platform committee meetings in 2016, she pushed back against a call to ban fracking, and accused Sanders’s picks for the committee of being on a “burn-it-down march to the ideological sea.”

Another early Biden campaign adviser on climate and energy, per a May 2019 Reuters story, was Frank Verrastro, a senior adviser with the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who formerly led its energy and national security program. The think tank accepts generous donations from a number of fossil fuel companies. Per disclosures, CSIS received between $35,000 and $64,999 each from Occidental Petroleum Corporation, ConocoPhillips, Eni, and Tellurian. Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, Cheniere, Total, and Royal Dutch Shell each gave between $65,000 and $99,999; Equinor and BP gave between $100,000 and $199,999 dollars; and ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco gave between $200,000 and $499,999. Chevron is listed as donating at the “$500,000 and up” level.

Biden’s former political director in the Senate, Ankit Desai, went on to serve as a lobbyist and vice president of Cheniere before joining Tellurian, where he now serves as a senior adviser to the CEO. Desai gave $1,000 to the campaign on August 12, 2019, but the money was returned. “I was a registered lobbyist in 2019 and I wasn’t aware that the Biden campaign wasn’t taking lobbyist dollars,” he said by email. “I think Joe Biden is a great guy that can help win down-ballot races.” Asked about Biden’s climate plans by phone, he replied, “they are really solid.” Listing his employer as Tellurian, Desai also gave $2,500 to the DNC on December 9.

While Desai and Hochstein, unlike Zichal, are not working on Biden’s campaign, that may not allay environmentalists’ fears about fossil fuel influence, should a Biden presidency follow the “Return to Normal” plan outlined by his confidants to Axios. Asked whether he might return to work in the White House, Desai said, “I think that’s for people in their twenties. I would highly doubt that I would go back. But you never know.”

Those listed above are not the only ones in Biden’s orbit to have found funding from, or lucrative gigs in, the fossil fuel industries after their time in public office, and who might conceivably wind up advising a Biden administration. “The fossil fuel industry treats investment in policy expertise like they treat investments in oil pipelines and extraction,” Billy Fleming, director of the Ian L. McCarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania and a former member of Obama’s White House Domestic Policy Council, told me by phone. “They hedge their bets and spread their money around in the hopes that someone will eventually make their way into an administration that is on their team.”

“We should be skeptical of anyone who worked to push Obama’s All of the Above agenda being welcomed back into doing climate work at the White House. We need a new generation of people to see us through,” Fleming added. “Hiring a fossil fuel industry insider like Heather Zichal to write climate policy is like asking [JP Morgan Chase CEO] Jamie Dimon to run Treasury.” (Biden would indeed consider Dimon for that position, according to the “confidants” who spoke to Axios; the campaign called this “laughable speculation.”)

In September, Biden also attended a Manhattan fundraiser hosted by the founder of a natural gas export company and “a long-term investor in the liquefied natural gas sector,” Andrew Goldman. Groups circulating the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge argued at the time that this represented a clear violation of the pledge’s spirit. Questioned about his relationship to Zichal and his position on fracking by a member of Sunrise in December, Biden grew visibly agitated before telling the young activist, “You oughta vote for someone else.”

Biden’s openness to fracking is broadly consistent with the Obama administration’s All of the Above energy strategy, which was embraced by a number of green groups during his time in office. The Obama administration and even Biden did plenty to spur renewables through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which invested $90 billion in low-carbon technologies under Biden’s oversight; while the stimulus was considered far too small by many experts, renewable power generation nonetheless doubled over the course of Obama’s first term.

But fossil fuels got a serious boost, too. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton worked closely with energy companies to spread the gospel of fracking to the world after the administration had backed a suite of aggressive measures to support renewables at home. Support for shale oil and gas continued under her successor, John Kerry. The theory was—and still is, for some—that a concerted effort to develop clean energy can coincide with hearty oil and natural gas development in meeting climate goals and transitioning away from coal, as more abundant and lower-carbon energy would outcompete dirtier sources on a free market.

It’s now clear that this approach is inconsistent with abundant evidence from the scientific community on the need for a rapid transition off fossil fuels. Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have proposed phasing out fracking entirely by 2025. Biden, by contrast, has pledged not to ban it.

Biden’s conspicuous centrism on this subject shows how much liberal consensus on fossil fuels has changed in the past few years, particularly as climate science has coalesced around the need for quicker action. Biden’s 2020 platform is certainly more ambitious than almost anything that was offered in 2016, even from Sanders. But as a 2020 candidate, Biden’s vision for climate action has been markedly less ambitious than his competitors’.

“The plans differ night and day,” says Daniel Kammen, a physicist who has worked on climate science and energy issues under the last four presidents, speaking of Biden’s and Sanders’s climate platforms. “Biden has a rough plan to get to carbon neutral by 2050. Sanders has a plan and an investment package to do it by 2030.” Last month, Kammen joined over 100 other climate scientists in signing on to a letter endorsing Sanders’s climate plan, after Biden claimed that “not a single scientist” supported Sanders’s vision. “The Green New Deal you [Sanders] are proposing is not only possible, but it must be done if we want to save the planet for ourselves, our children, grandchildren, and future generations,” the letter states.

“When I signed on that letter, I didn’t just do it as Joe Member of the Public who feels like we could do it with a Manhattan Project or something,” Kammen said. He first ran it through the energy model he’s developed, called Switch, in his Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. And while Sanders and Sunrise 2030 targets have come under fire from some energy wonks as unrealistic, Kammen said its ambitious goals are entirely feasible. “I’m really disappointed that the Biden plan hasn’t kept up with the latest results out of the U.S. national laboratories and my lab here,” he told me. “We could go much further than 2050 and do so in a way that generates more jobs.”

Kammen left the State Department after Trump’s comments on white supremacist violence in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017. There are things he disagrees with in both the Sanders plan and the Biden plan, he added. He doesn’t support Sanders’s proposed fracking phaseout, which he thinks would overly antagonize the industry. But either Biden or Sanders, he said, would represent a massive improvement on the Trump administration. “Both have proposed solid plans (just with massively different funding levels and timetables), and both would help the U.S. to get back to the leadership position it needs to assume for domestic job creation, industrial leadership, and social justice,” Kammen wrote in a follow-up email. “The administrations would likely differ greatly on the speed and priorities. However, my hope is that in the general election the Biden plan would move to Sanders’s, and in the general the Sanders plan would adopt features of Biden, including a less absolute view on fracking and nuclear.”

Biden’s campaign pitch has been premised on a return to Obama-era normalcy and a relief from the round-the-clock news cycles of the Trump era. But as wildfires in California and the onslaught of bleak studies on global warming are making clear, there’s no normal to return to where the climate is concerned. Even the fossil fuel industry will find normalcy difficult going forward; Tellurian Inc., where several Obama alums have landed, announced Monday that it will lay off 40 percent of employees amid the sharpest crash in oil prices since 1991.

The full impact of unconventional oil and gas development on the climate may not have been as well understood during the Obama administration. But whether or not an All of the Above energy strategy may have been defensible five or 10 years ago, today the need for limits on extraction—including natural gas—is plainer than ever. Given the fossil fuel industry’s expansive lobbying against even modest climate measures at every level of government, it seems clear that any plan that shifts the country away from fossil fuels in time to avert catastrophe will involve a massive fight with one of the most powerful industries the world has ever known. Given some of the advisers in his orbit, Biden might not be willing to wage that fight as president.