Sep 3, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Natural gas remains the big question in Biden’s climate change plan

Illustration of a question mark made out of blue fire

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Joe Biden has the most aggressive climate-change plan in presidential-election history, but he continues to evade the dicey topic of natural gas.

Why it matters: Natural gas, mostly derived from the controversial extraction process called fracking, is filling an increasingly large role in America’s energy system. It’s cleaner than oil and coal, but is still a fossil fuel with heat-trapping emissions.

Driving the news: This week in Pennsylvania, a battleground state with a big natural-gas industry, Biden repeatedly said he is not going to ban fracking “no matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me.”

  • Biden has previously made comments that clearly indicate he wanted to ban fracking. But he made them last year during primary season and his campaign quickly walked them back.

The intrigue: The Biden campaign has largely focused on supporting renewables instead of penalizing fossil fuels, a subtle but essential distinction likely made to not alienate voters in natural-gas heavy swing states including Pennsylvania and Ohio.

  • That positioning persists despite increased pressure from youth activist groups, chiefly the Sunrise Movement, to target oil, natural gas and coal more directly.
  • “I thought they could have gone further on fossil fuels,” said Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement and a participant on a task force that gave recommendations to the campaign. “It’s something I pushed for, but ultimately that didn’t happen.”
  • In the interview, which was before Biden’s comments in Pennsylvania, Prakash said she couldn’t remember what reason the campaign gave for that position. “I think they’re making a political calculus.” (She declined to respond to Biden's comments when reached by email Wednesday.)
  • Since the general election kicked off, Biden doesn’t talk much about how he would limit oil and natural gas. “Every time you talk about it, you piss someone off,” said one person close to the campaign who spoke candidly only on the condition of anonymity.

Where it stands: The former VP pledged to ban new leasing of oil and gas on federal lands, for which the impact is more symbolic than substantive. Most production is on private or state lands.

  • Biden’s climate plan also calls for a zero-carbon electricity system in the next 15 years and the entire economy by 2050.
  • Such goals are in line with what scientists say is needed to adequately address climate change on a global level. But they’re herculean tasks because the American economy, like the world, is heavily dependent on oil, natural gas and coal.
  • Natural gas is powering almost 50% of the U.S. electricity system as of late July, up almost 10% from last year. It was less than a quarter a decade ago.
  • Gas could emit almost no carbon dioxide if it had technology attached that captured the emissions, but that's not commercialized yet.

For the record: "The scale of the climate crisis requires us to leave all of the options on the table," said campaign spokesman Matt Hill about natural gas with carbon capture and other technologies controversial to some environmentalists, like nuclear power.

Flashback: Democrats used to widely consider natural gas an environmentally friendly energy.

  • That’s because it burns 50% fewer C02 emissions than coal and has very little particulate pollution compared to oil and coal.
  • But over the last several years, scientists and environmentalists have raised concerns about methane, gas’s primary component and a potent greenhouse gas. Methane can leak when companies produce and transport the fuel.
  • For that and other reasons, most Democrats have soured on the fuel as even a temporary solution to climate change, at least in the U.S.
“People used to call it a bridge fuel, including myself. But I think you have got to get off the bridge.”
— John Podesta, who has advised the last two Democratic presidents and is advising the Biden campaign.

What I’m watching: What a potential Biden administration would do with exports of liquefied natural gas. This is worth keeping an eye on for a couple reasons:

  1. A Biden administration could stop approving projects awaiting government green light (after, ironically, the Obama administration sped the approval process up).
  2. The calculus here would likely consider the global picture, which is often more heavily reliant on coal than the U.S.

“There is still an appetite for gas around the world where you’re still seeing gas displacing more polluting coal,” Podesta said. “There’s going to be a period of time where you’re going to continue to see natural gas utilization.”

Yes, but: Prakash said she pushed for no exports of oil, natural gas or coal but that deliberations with the campaign settled on no coal exports only.

  • The campaign’s climate and energy plan doesn't mention fossil-fuel exports. But Biden said during a CNN town hall last year that he would ban such exports depending on what they were replacing abroad.

Go deeper... Biden: “I am not banning fracking"

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