The unhappiness among advocates could point to trouble in 2024, sapping the enthusiasm Biden will need from his party’s base to win reelection, people following the policy debate warn. He also faces a risk that his accomplishments — including signing the nation’s biggest-ever climate law — will have to compete for attention with criticism of administration moves that bolster fossil fuels.
“What I’m calling pragmatism is still a great source of disappointment to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party,” said David Goldwyn, who led the energy office in Obama’s State Department and is now president of the energy consulting firm Goldwyn Global Strategies.
That “pragmatism” won’t win over voters who see climate change as an emergency demanding a sharp turn away from fossil fuels, green activists say.
“President Biden will not win this election by reaching for conservative votes,” said Varshini Prakash, executive director of the youth-led environmental group Sunrise Movement, which has alternately cheered and panned Biden’s moves on climate change. In a statement, she said the administration’s recent moves are “steps backward” that will discourage people who supported him in 2020.
“If you continue to do fossil fuels, isn’t that just another form of climate denialism?” asked Jean Su, energy justice director and senior attorney with the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity.
In response, the administration noted that Biden last month banned new oil and gas leases in the entire U.S. portion of the Arctic Ocean, and is preparing to close off 13 million acres of land and water in Alaska from fossil fuel development. It contends that any of its fossil fuel moves were either mandated by Congress — such as a March sale of offshore oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico — or a legal calculation on matters left over from the Trump administration.
“President Biden has been delivering on the most ambitious climate agenda ever with the support of labor groups, environmental justice and climate leaders, youth advocates, and more,” White House spokesperson Abdullah Hasan said in a statement Friday.
A majority of the climate movement has praised Biden — and many of its leaders joined the president at an April 21 Rose Garden event where he announced new steps to block pollution in poor or minority communities, Hasan noted. Yet the administration has nonetheless tried to soothe the anxieties of the Democratic base’s most fervent climate backers.
In a recent New Yorker article, White House climate adviser John Podesta urged climate supporters to have some “perspective” about the Interior Department’s decision last month to greenlight a ConocoPhillips oil drilling project in Willow, Alaska. The department has said it approved the project reluctantly to avoid what would have probably been an unsuccessful court fight with Conoco.
“I’m not trying to minimize, but it’s less than one per cent of the emission reductions that come from the” climate law, Podesta said. “I think the opponents have overstated the climate effect.”
For Biden, as for Obama, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas pollution have had to coexist with the politics of energy prices and the United States’ newfound role as a major oil and gas producer.
Both presidents unleashed huge amounts of oil from the nation’s strategic reserves to respond to disruptions of the oil markets — although Biden did it on a much larger scale. Obama’s early moves to send more U.S. gas overseas have also turned into a mighty geopolitical weapon for Biden, who is using fossil fuel exports to blunt Vladimir Putin’s influence over Europe.
Of course, Biden has accomplished something Obama never did — signing a major climate bill, last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, with its $369 billion in incentives designed to move the nation’s power supply, vehicles and other carbon sources away from fossil fuels. That’s far larger than the $90 billion in clean energy spending from Obama’s 2009 stimulus, which is widely credited with bringing down the costs of wind and solar power.
The Biden administration has followed up with regulations designed to push gasoline-powered cars and trucks out of the market and an upcoming proposal to clamp down on power plants’ greenhouse gas pollution. (Obama’s attempt to do the latter was eventually rejected by the Supreme Court.) The president is taking abundant flak for those efforts from Republicans, whose attacks on Biden’s energy policies are a centerpiece of their 2024 messaging.
But the administration’s recent actions advancing fossil fuels contradict those efforts, in the view of some irritated Democratic constituencies. Approval of Biden’s environmental performance has slipped among Democrats, independents and younger voters since October 2022, according to the polling firm Data for Progress and the group Fossil Free Media, which opposes fossil fuel advertising and messaging.
Democrats’ approval of Biden’s environmental policies fell to 69 percent in March, down from 82 percent in October, while 30 percent of independents approved versus 37 percent in March, the poll found. Biden’s environmental favorables plummeted with voters ages 18 to 29 over that period, from 48 percent to 35 percent. That period covered the approval of the Willow oil project.
On the other hand, the Willow decision is popular with much of the American public, according to separate polls showing that roughly half support the project. A YouGov poll found 55 percent of U.S. adults backed it, while approval hit 48 percent in a Morning Consult poll — with 25 percent having no opinion.
As a candidate in 2020, Biden promised to shift the U.S. off fossil fuels, pledging, “I guarantee you. We’re going to end fossil fuel,” though he later cautioned this would happen “over time.”
But Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 jostled the administration’s energy rhetoric and view of natural gas, according to industry officials. European allies wanted to ditch their reliance on Russian gas, and the Biden administration helped by promoting an export surge that led to U.S. companies providing half of Europe’s liquefied natural gas last year.
Fossil fuels have also gotten a boost from some of the administration’s domestic actions. Earlier this month, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm endorsed the energy security benefits of a nearly completed natural gas pipeline championed by Senate Energy Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) — a project Biden’s green allies fiercely oppose. In an April Senate hearing, Biden’s pick for chief economist, Jared Bernstein, boasted that the administration had permitted more oil and gas wells in its first two years than former President Donald Trump.
Even if they disapprove of Biden’s recent fossil fuel moves, his most ardent green allies contend that the president has focused on the right things to reduce the United States’ climate impact: new car and truck pollution standards, upcoming power plant rules and his vow to defend the IRA from the cuts Republicans are demanding.
“Those are the big key issues here, and how they navigate the politics on that is very important,” said Jamal Raad, co-founder and senior adviser for the environmental group Evergreen Action.
“If you sum the effort on balance, it moves very much in the direction of emissions reduction,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told reporters.
Obama’s efforts to pass his own climate bill failed during his first term, and his most aggressive climate actions didn’t emerge until late in his second term. Those included his 2015 decision to reject Keystone — a pipeline Biden had to kill a second time after Trump tried to revive it — and a carbon rule for power plants that the Supreme Court rejected last year.
Obama also played a major role in reaching the Paris climate agreement, in which the U.S. joined every other nation on Earth in pledging to address climate change.
But Obama had something Biden doesn’t have: more time on the Earth’s climate clock. The additional six years of greenhouse gas pollution since Obama left office means that the world is closer to exceeding the amount of global warming that would usher in catastrophic consequences.
So any nod toward fossil fuel use at home or abroad is a step in the wrong direction, activists say.
“Joe Biden is tacking to the right on a number of issues — climate included,” said Lukas Ross, a program manager with environmental group Friends of the Earth. “I can guarantee the climate doesn’t care where U.S. fossil fuels are combusted. That’s the worry here.”
The administration has insisted its actions are consistent with its climate goals, noting it wants to cut greenhouse gas pollution in half by 2030, and that technologies aimed at limiting fossil fuels’ warming effects — such as capturing power plants’ carbon output — remain options.
Mindful of the climate implications, the Biden administration has called gas a diplomatic tool while cautioning that new infrastructure must not squander the nation’s climate goals. It also has pushed regulations, originally initiated under Obama but strengthened by Biden, to limit pollution by heat-trapping methane from oil and gas production.
In addition, the administration is discussing a system to assure European and other buyers that U.S. gas is clean enough to maintain national climate pledges. And the Energy Department is starting to assess whether its approvals of gas export projects are jeopardizing the nation’s goals for cutting carbon pollution.
But Biden’s efforts are still complicated by the United States’ role as one of the world’s top oil and gas producers, a status it achieved during the Obama years thanks to the fracking boom.
The president and his advisers “haven’t quite figured out how you resolve the perceived tension between the U.S. being increasingly an exporter of [gas] — like, the major exporter — and that being important for allies and the global economy with their long-term climate agenda,” said Joseph Majkut, director of the energy security and climate change program at the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.