Where Obama Danced Around Fossil Fuel Controversy, Clinton Falls on her Face
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce waded into the presidential election campaign last week with the release of a report that accuses Hillary Clinton of supporting the “Keep it in the ground” anti-fossil fuel movement of the environmental far left. In the process, the report, by the chamber’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, exposed a key political weakness of Clinton’s campaign.
The chamber notes that, when asked if she would ban fossil-fuel extraction on federal lands, Clinton said, “That’s a done deal.” That comment stands in stark contrast to her more moderate and pragmatic stands on energy issues as a U.S. senator and secretary of state.
Clinton is trying, not very successfully thus far, to emulate the Barack Obama Two-Step on American oil and gas production. While announcing his rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline application, Obama said: “We’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.” It was a comment that was immediately seized upon by eco-activists and became the inspiration for “Keep it in the ground.”
But the president’s cabinet members and advisors are dancing to a different tune. Sally Jewel, Obama’s interior secretary, has said: “It’s going to take a very long time before we can wean ourselves from fossil fuels, so I think that to keep it in the ground is naive, to say we could shift to 100 per cent renewables is naive.”
And here’s Obama’s chief science adviser, John Holdren: “The notion that we’re going to keep it all in the ground is unrealistic … We are still a very heavily fossil-fuel-dependent world … You don’t overturn a US$25 trillion investment overnight.”
The political strategy has worked well for Obama. Eco-activists are annoyed that he isn’t moving faster on climate change mitigation, but not so annoyed that they aggressively oppose him. “President Barack Obama has taken some important steps to address this issue. Unfortunately they’re not enough to stave off the worst impacts of climate change,” says the Center for Biological Diversity, a leader in the “Keep it in the ground” movement.
Meanwhile, Clinton has been flat-out clumsy on the political dance floor, allowing the Bernie Sanders campaign to drag her much further leftward than her historic energy positions. For instance, her comments about banning fracking — saying in March that “by the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place” — have, in most instances, already come back to haunt her.
Part of Clinton’s problem is that she is a candidate, not the president. During a campaign she is expected to articulate party policy and her intentions. Without the benefit of cabinet members and other officials to moderate her message, the Obama Two-Step seems just too difficult for her to master. And oil and gas allies like the Chamber of Commerce aren’t making it easier for her.
As University of Alberta Professor Lianne Lefsrud’s work shows, the energy debate has shifted from cognitive legitimacy — a matter of facts, data, logic, science, etc. — to normative legitimacy, based on emotion and morality.
Big Green has exploited this shift brilliantly by scaring voters with visions of apocalyptic climate change, while appealing to them with rosy visions of the Clean Energy Utopia. And those anti-fossil-fuel progressive voters and campaign donors like Tom Steyer or Hollywood celebrity Mark Ruffalo are keeping up intense and animated political pressure while the chamber and other sober organizations release boring economic studies – this latest one shows that banning fossil-fuel extraction on federal lands would kill more than 380,000 jobs and deliver a US$70 billion annual hit to the economy. You can hear the collective yawn all across America.
So, sure, it’s good to know that the House “Keep it in the Ground Act,” bill with its 20-plus co-sponsors would put a halt to 25 per cent of America’s oil, natural gas and coal production and cost the government US$11.3 billion in lost royalties annually, as the chamber claims in its study. Now figure out how to make voters care. Because Hillary Clinton clearly can’t get her feet untangled long enough to help.