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Op-Ed | The Intercept | August 7, 2020

On Climate Policy, Biden’s Advisers Reveal More Than His Proposals Do

2020 Election/Transition

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Last month, Joe Biden’s presidential campaign released a sweeping climate proposal calling for 100 percent clean energy and net-zero emissions by 2050. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is working to finalize its 2020 platform. As of now, the platform is more aggressive than the 2016 document, but somehow does not mention fossil fuels in its section on climate change. 

While some climate activists raised concerns about the party tiptoeing around the largest driver of climate change, most mainstream media marvelled over Biden’s personal climate promises. These include calls to hold fossil fuel companies and polluters accountable, impose limits on existing oil and gas operations, and incorporate climate change into the country’s foreign policy agenda. To hear one former Republican Congressman tell it, Biden is calling for “a version of the Sanders Green New Deal,” and has given progressive populists anything they could ever hope for.

But that’s only if you take platforms and campaign promises at face value. Vague platitudes in a speech or campaign proposal aren’t the best indicator of a candidate’s direction, nor of what will actually influence a Joe Biden White House. There is a better gauge: personnel.

Viewed through that lens, environmental activists may have serious reason to worry about the man who could lead the United States for about half of our remaining years to prevent an irreversible climate catastrophe. For all the warranted celebration of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez co-chairing a task force on climate policy, Biden has not yet agreed to follow its recommendations. 

Meanwhile, several of Biden’s informal advisers and confidants on energy policy are veterans of the Obama administration’s “all of the above” strategy, which embraced fossil fuel development and technologies like fracking while publicly trumpeting clean energy commitments. These individuals oversaw the BP oil spill and the violent repression of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests (a set of tactics which Trump is now emulating to put down peaceful demonstrators) and then went to work for oil and gas companies or law firms, investment companies, and think tanks funded by the fossil fuel industry. If appointed to key energy and environmental jobs, they could pose an existential threat to even the most ambitious climate plans.

Heather Zichal

Former Obama climate policy chief Heather Zichal began informally advising the Biden team on climate mere weeks after the former vice president threw his hat into the ring. Zichal served as a liaison between the Obama administration and the energy industry. During her tenure, Zichal worked closely with industry executives to “streamline” federal regulations on fracking, meeting more than 20 times with industry groups and lobbyists in 2012 alone. Leaders in the oil and gas industry have praised her for her efforts to decrease the regulatory burden on their sector.

Immediately after leaving her post in the Obama White House, Zichal joined the fossil fuel industry’s ranks, accepting a lucrative position on the board of Cheniere, one of the largest natural gas companies in the country. While Zichal was still in office, Cheniere was the first company to receive approval from the Obama administration to export fracked gas. The company has since ramped up its exports under this administration, earning praise from President Donald Trump.

Zichal also joined the Atlantic Council as a senior fellow, an industry-funded think tank that includes Cheniere as one of its many corporate sponsors. The Atlantic Council’s most recent work includes a report commissioned by Trump’s Secretary of Energy recommending the administration expand nuclear power, natural gas exports, and oil and gas exploration. Zichal also works as an independent energy consultant, offering up her connections and expertise to fossil fuel companies, including PG&E. 

As an adviser, Zichal provides the fossil fuel industry with a direct line to the Biden camp. Zichal has already sought policy advice from Ernest Moniz, board member of Southern Company, and Frank Verrastro, head of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Energy and National Security Program, which is funded by Exxon Mobil. Meanwhile, she has shown little patience for climate activists over the years, dismissing their policy platforms as unrealistic, and going so far as to equate them to members of the Tea Party. Zichal did not respond to a request for comment.

Jason Bordoff

Jason Bordoff, who served as a climate adviser to the National Security Council and the Council on Environmental Quality under Obama, is informally advising the Biden campaign on energy and climate issues, providing the industry with yet another path to exert influence on a future administration’s energy policy. Bordoff, like Zichal, has argued in favor of increased natural gas exports and fracking.

Immediately after leaving the administration, Bordoff founded the Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP) at Columbia University, a reputational laundromat. Underwritten by the oil and gas industry, the Center produces reports that coincidentally lend support to industry talking points, such as advocating for privatizing Mexico’s energy sector and expanding fracking efforts in China. Bordoff personally authored a report arguing in favor of lifting the ban on crude oil exports in the U.S., a paper that has been widely cited by the oil and gas industry, as well as Republican legislators.

Huge oil and gas companies including BP, Cheniere, Exxon, and Chevron have opened their checkbooks to support CGEP’s research, which Bordoff hopes will “draw out all arguments on both sides” of the environmental “debate.” Bordoff’s assumption that the science and data behind climate change is up for debate should shock Democrats across the spectrum and immediately disqualify him from a role in a potential Biden administration. But even if one accepted Bordoff’s premise that there was a debate about the climate crisis, his financial backers and publications clearly reveal on which side he falls. In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for Bordoff stated that he “has focused on the urgency of the climate crisis” and that he and CGEP “follow the facts and evidence wherever they lead, independently, objectively, and in accordance with the highest academic standards.”

Bordoff also serves on the National Petroleum Council (NPC), a federal advisory committee made up of oil and gas industry executives that provides advice to the Department of Energy. The NPC has advocated for lifting restrictions on oil and gas exploration in the arctic and developing new gas pipelines at the request of Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Both the Trump Administration and the fossil fuel industry use NPC reports to defend their anti-environmental stances. The NPC has gained notoriety for attempting to shield energy company information from the public, including information on how the fossil fuel industry affects climate change. 

Ernest Moniz

Obama’s Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz, has also joined the Biden team as an “informal adviser.” Moniz was (and remains) a vocal advocate for fracking and natural gas — watch enough of Moniz’s speeches, and you’ll notice that he only ever calls for a “low-carbon future,” not a “zero-carbon future.” Moniz declined to comment.

Moniz has a personal stake in the carbon economy: he currently sits on the board of Southern Company, the Atlanta-based natural gas utility, and he’s called its CEO Tom Fanning “an industry leader.” Fanning says he and Moniz are “kind of a tag team.” Moniz, in other words, is business partners with a man who has publicly denied that human activity causes climate change. “Is climate change happening? Certainly. It’s been happening for millennia,” Fanning said on CNBC in 2017. 

Southern was among the first companies to sue the Obama administration over its Clean Power Plan, which was a set of regulations aimed at cutting power plant emissions by 30 percent. The Center for American Progress found that the litigants on that suit, including Southern, were responsible for 21 percent of all U.S. carbon emissions in 2013.

Fanning isn’t the only fossil fuel CEO with whom Moniz is close. The former CEO of BP, Lord John Browne, is the chair of the advisory board for Moniz’s energy policy think tank, the Energy Futures Initiative. Moniz also sits alongside Browne on the advisory board of private equity fund Angeleno Group

The Energy Futures Initiative’s signature proposal is the “Green Real Deal,” a centrist alternative to the Green New Deal, which Moniz has suggested is a “demonstrably impractical, short-term, feel-good solution.” Moniz first pitched the Green Real Deal to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the corporate lobbying group that spent decades denying climate change. And the Green Real Deal has a place for natural gas and fracking, both of which he’s defended against what he calls “the climate elite.”

In a debate at the Oxford Union, Moniz claimed “the climate elite have done much too much moralizing and hectoring about the path for addressing climate change as opposed to working locally, regionally, [and] recognizing regional differences.” He demanded that college students adamant about ending fossil fuel emissions “translate that into a practical program that involves technology, social dynamics, politics, policy, all of the above.”

But Moniz is a former Cabinet secretary. He is a Ph.D and multimillionaire, the very definition of an “elite.” If the energy transition thus far has failed to create the “practical program” he wants, that’s a failure of his own policy-making. In the years since that debate, young people created a “practical program” in the Green New Deal, which was propelled into the national spotlight by the  youth-led Sunrise Movement. Moniz’s response? To castigate that work through a think tank advised by BP’s former CEO.

Brian Deese

Wall Street’s route into Biden’s climate policy may run through Brian Deese, a former senior Obama aide who now works for BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager. On Friday, E&E News reported that Deese is working with the campaign, following rumors that have swirled throughout the campaign cycle about him receiving a plum job in a potential Biden administration, especially given Biden’s early favor-currying with Deese’s boss at BlackRock, Larry Fink. This has prompted plenty of fretting from climate-watchers. Reached through a spokesperson, Deese did not respond to a request for comment.

Deese, who helped negotiate the Paris Climate Agreement, now runs BlackRock’s sustainable investing division. This does not mean that he pushes BlackRock to use its wealth and influence for environmentally responsible purposes. Instead, his job is to factor the climate apocalypse into the firm’s investment decisions, such as avoiding “operating in extremely climate-exposed regions, like the coastal United States.” As John Patrick Leary wrote of BlackRock in the New Republic, “Managing the investment risk of climate change, in short, does not mean fighting climate change. It means making sure that your investment portfolio earns the highest returns despite climate change or even from climate change.”

BlackRock is the single largest investor in the fossil fuel industry, but it is also the largest investor in renewables: Due to its sheer size, as Deese puts it, “we end up being one of the top owners of every industry.” But he does not appear troubled by the company’s continued oil and gas holdings, declaring “This is not just about excluding entire industries or entire classes of companies.”

Of course, for millions not to die, the entire fossil fuel industry must cease spewing carbon into the atmosphere (much sooner rather than later, preferably). But Deese’s job is to prevent low returns on financial investments, not extinction. As he told Christiane Amanpour, “we are very focused on these questions of ‘where is public sentiment?’ but to the degree that it will actually affect how long-term value is created.” Translation: the public only matters to the extent that it impacts BlackRock’s money. 

He had similar aims in the Obama White House: Deese described his White House job to a Bloomberg podcaster as thinking about “how do we create the right conditions for private capital to move into lower carbon solutions and accelerate the transition to lower carbon economy?” In other words, his concern was “how do we set up Wall Street to profit from the green economy” — not just “how do we green the economy.”

And then there’s his record on non-climate issues. At a confirmation hearing to become the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget in 2013, he told Congress he’d work toward a “comprehensive deficit reduction agreement” (read: austerity) focused on “entitlement reform and tax reform.” What kind of entitlement reform? “I think it is appropriate to look at means-testing Medicare. I think the president has put a proposal out that I think makes some sense, because as part of these overall reforms, I think we have to ask the questions about whether those who are the most fortunate should be paying a little bit more. It’s still going to be a good deal for them as part of the system.”

To this day, Deese advocates for drastic cuts to government spending and gets paid to do it. He gives paid speeches to corporate trade groups through the APB speaking agency, where his page advertises that he can speak about “how the budget process can actually be used to reform entitlements and the tax code.”

2020 Election/Transition

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