Washington — In their final presidential debate, Democratic nominee Joe Biden defended his climate vision from an onslaught of attacks by President Donald Trump, who largely punted on providing any detailed climate or energy policies of his own.
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In what was a far less combative encounter Oct. 22, allowing for a crisper presentation with substantive debate, Trump touted the importance of having clean air and water without harming the economy and jobs growth, two areas he contended would be decimated by Biden's climate agenda.
Prodded by Trump to comment on whether he would "close down the oil industry," Biden said a move toward net-zero carbon emissions by target dates as envisioned in his climate plan would require a shift away from oil. He added that he would end federal subsidies to oil companies.
Though not entirely surprising for the Democratic contender for president to say he "would transition from the oil industry" and replace it over time with renewable energy, Trump harped on Biden's response as "the biggest statement in terms of business."
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Plea to voters
"What [Biden] is saying is he is going to destroy the oil industry," Trump asserted. He asked voters in energy-producing and battleground states such as Texas and Pennsylvania to remember that when they headed to the polls.
Of note, some 48 million Americans have already cast their votes in this election and most polls point to a smaller pool of undecided voters than in past elections.
"Recent surveys show that a majority of Americans support federal action on climate change, including those in oil and gas producing states," Jeff Berman, S&P Global Platts Analytics' director of emissions and clean energy analytics, said in an email Oct. 23, referencing Platts Analytics' Sept. 29 US CO2 Pricing Monitor.
Trump also baited Biden into an exchange on his position on fracking. The former vice president adamantly denied ever saying he opposed the practice and later in the debate clarified that he said he would ban fracking on federal lands.
On the debate stage, he ruled out an all-out ban on fracking and said he would instead encourage investments that enable the capture of emissions from fracking and the natural gas extraction process.
Trump's Twitter account, by the end of the debate, featured a video montage of Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris on several occasions asserting they would phase out fossil fuel development and move away from fracking.
Platts Analytics expects Biden's proposal to halt new drilling permits on federal lands to cut domestic oil output by 1.1 million b/d and natural gas output by 3.7 Bcf/d by 2025, as long as existing permits and drilled-but-uncompleted wells are allowed to continue. A halt to all drilling on federal lands and waters would cut oil output by 1.6 million b/d.
But Trump's hits on Biden's climate vision, which includes a four-year, $2 trillion plan to invest in infrastructure and clean energy, did little to mask the lack of a concrete plan from the president to address climate change.
Rather, Trump claimed to have an impeccable environmental record, with the cleanest air and water and "the best carbon emission numbers that we've had in 35 years under this administration."
His statement on emissions, however, was somewhat misleading as US energy-related carbon emissions have been on the decline since peaking in 2007, with annual reductions averaging 1.3%. Data from the Energy Information Administration shows those emissions declined just 0.8% from 2016, the end of the Obama administration, to 2019. Further, carbon emissions reductions have largely been driven by low natural gas prices that made gas-fired generation cost competitive with coal and Obama-era policies supportive of renewable energy, EIA said.
Trump defended his decision to leave the Paris climate accord for what he viewed as unfair treatment of the US that "would have destroyed our businesses," and touted the geopolitical benefits of being energy independent.
He went on to criticize windmills as "extremely expensive," foreign-sourced bird killers with a large carbon footprint and contended that "solar isn't powerful enough yet to run factories needed to compete with the world."
Biden, on the other hand, said that climate change "is an existential threat to humanity," and the US has "a moral obligation to deal with it."
He said that both environmental and labor groups supported his climate plan because it would create millions of new jobs. He also asserted that his approach would allow the US to own the electric car market of the future and retrofit millions of homes and buildings to be more energy efficient and save hundreds of millions of barrels of oil in the process.
Again, Trump turned to scrutinizing Biden's proposed climate policies in lieu of delving deeper into his own energy policy plans.
He referred to Biden's climate plan as "an economic disaster" developed by "AOC plus three," his moniker for Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan – four first-term, progressive Democratic congresswomen of color who have become known in political circles as "The Squad."
Trump further attacked Biden's climate agenda as "the craziest plan that anybody has ever seen." He claimed his challenger's proposal would end up costing $100 trillion and do things such as "knock down buildings and build new buildings with little tiny small windows."
Biden laughed off much of Trump's attack of his climate policies. "I don't know where he comes up with these numbers," he said of Trump's purported price tag. "We can grow and we can be cleaner if we go the route I'm proposing," Biden said.
Further illustrating their divide in viewpoints, Trump pointed to higher incomes his administration has fostered for people of color when asked about environmental justice and his rollback of regulations on oil refiners and chemical plants near which people of color are more likely to live.
By contrast, Biden said, "The fact is for those frontline communities, it doesn't matter what you're paying them, it matters how you keep them safe. What do you do? You impose restrictions on the pollutants coming out of those fenceline communities."
Berman said environmental justice initiatives in Biden's climate plan could have implications for oil and gas drilling, power plant and transmission line siting and other energy sector activities.