Election 2020

Climate Change, Energy Policy Playing A Bigger Role In 2020 Debates

After being largely left out of the 2016 debates, energy and the environment have been discussed at every Presidential Debate this election cycle. That’s expected to continue Thursday night.

President Donald Trump delivers remarks about American energy production during a visit to the Double Eagle Energy Oil Rig, Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Midland, Texas.

Energy policy and climate change are common topics in Houston, but they had been largely absent from the presidential race — until this year.

Back in 2016 there was just one question about energy policy during the presidential debates, and no questions on climate change. But this election cycle, energy and the environment have been discussed at all the debates. And climate change is one of the topics former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump are expected to talk about at Thursday's debate.

The oil and gas industry has been hurt especially hard during the coronavirus downturn, and many voters in Texas want to know how candidates will help the energy industry recover. Energy expert and Pulitzer-prize winning author Daniel Yergin says an overarching theme has emerged: how much the government should or shouldn't regulate the energy industry.

Yergin spoke with Houston Public Media about how each candidate would approach this question of regulation.


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The below interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On hydraulic fracturing, or fracking:

“Right now, the Biden campaign has internal struggles of what is its position on energy," Yergin says. "There are those who think only about climate, who say ‘ban fracking, we don’t want it.' And those kind of more centrists who say, ‘you know, this is a big sector of the economy. It has a big impact– and noteworthy, It has big big job impacts.'”

The centrist message has won for now: Biden's plan is a long way from a fracking ban — it would only limit new fracking on federal lands.

As for the President, he's mostly supported expanded drilling on public lands, a move applauded by groups like the Texas Oil and Gas Association, although most drilling in the state does not take place on federally-owned land. Overall Yergin says Trump has favored de-regulation.

President Donald Trump, left, Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, right, speaking during the first presidential debate with moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News, center, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio.

On new oil and gas pipelines:

President Trump has worked to greenlight controversial pipeline projects like Dakota Access and Keystone XL. Yergin says the Democrats would probably offer a different approach.

"I think that a Biden administration will seek to make an evaluation of the climate impacts of new pipelines part of the regulatory process in a very explicit way," he says. "So I think you should expect to see a lot of battles over that and battles over how those calculations are being done."

Constructing new pipelines will continue to be important for Houston-based oil and gas companies trying to get their product to the global market. Meanwhile, protests over pipelines have re-energized environmental activists.

On climate change policy and the push to renewable energy:

As far as climate policy goes, Yergin says the contrast between the candidates is clear: "Joe Biden has a two trillion dollar climate plan," he says. "Donald Trump doesn’t have a two trillion dollar climate plan. That’s the difference."

In the Vice Presidential Debate, Mike Pence said industry would help drive the push to lower emissions: "President Trump and I believe that the progress that we have made in a cleaner environment has been happening precisely because we have a strong free market economy."

Kamala Harris responded that Joe Biden's plan is "going to be about the creation of millions of jobs. We will achieve net zero emissions by 2050, carbon neutral by 2035."

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