Beyond the Green New Deal: Another climate cause is dividing Democrats

Some presidential contenders are joining the "Keep it in the ground" movement to ban mining, drilling and fracking. Others say that's going too far.
World climate summit in Katowice
Demonstrators disturb the speech of P.W. Griffith, an adviser to President Trump, during a U.N. climate summit in Poland in 2018.Monika Skolimowska / picture alliance via Getty Image

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By Benjy Sarlin

WASHINGTON — Democrats running for president have debated the Green New Deal for months, but a separate demand from climate advocates to aggressively restrict fossil fuel extraction is exposing new fissures within the field of primary candidates.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., unveiled a plan for public lands last week headlined by a moratorium on fossil fuel exploration. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called for a similar ban as well.

"Any serious effort to address climate change must include public lands  —  fossil fuel extraction in these areas is responsible for nearly a quarter of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions," Warren said in a Medium post outlining her plan.

The move drew cheers from activists in the "keep it in the ground" movement, a coalition of environmental activists who seek to block mining, drilling and fracking operations in order to push the economy toward renewable energy more quickly.

"Keep it in the ground" supporters draw on the same arguments as the Green New Deal: According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world has only a limited window to slash greenhouse gas emissions to levels that are likely to head off a dangerous increase in global temperatures.

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But the two causes, while closely related, are not identical. The Green New Deal resolution co-authored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., called for sweeping investments in renewable energy, but kept silent on how to regulate fossil fuels. That omission prompted some criticism from groups like Greenpeace, which praised Warren and Sanders for their plans.

The climate advocacy group 350.org is keeping a scorecard for 2020 candidates that grades them separately on their support for the Green New Deal and for "keep it in the ground" policies. "In order to actually achieve a Green New Deal, you have to transition off fossil fuels," Thanu Yakupitiyage, U.S. communications manager for 350.org, told NBC News. "It's implicit in the deal."

Sens. Warren, Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., have signed onto the "Keep It In The Ground Act," a bill by Sen. Jeff Merkley that would block new oil, coal and gas leases on public land and waters. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who is running on a climate-focused platform, has said he supports it as well. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., is backing a separate bill with Sanders that seeks "a mandatory fossil fuel phase-out" in the electricity sector by 2050. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., has tweeted that she opposes drilling on public land.

The issue is set to be a major divide in the general election. President Donald Trump has regularly disparaged climate science and renewable energy technology, while pushing for an expansion of coal, oil and gas and rolling back Obama-era regulations. Republicans have made the Green New Deal an early focus of their attacks.

But even among Democrats and climate-minded policymakers, keeping it in the ground is far from a default position.

Some argue natural gas, a booming industry in recent years, is an important component of any climate strategy because it displaces energy sources like coal that produce more pollution. On the political front, some Democrats worry about ceding ground on economic policy to Republicans, who cite oil and gas production as a source of job growth.

"I see these attempts to ban production of oil and gas on public lands more as a campaign ploy than a serious climate change strategy," said Paul Bledsoe, a former climate aide to President Bill Clinton and strategic adviser at the centrist Progressive Policy Institute.

Within the 2020 Democratic field, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has made his ties to the oil and gas industry a key part of his campaign message, setting up a contrast with candidates like Warren and Sanders. Dubbed "Frackenlooper" by environmental critics in the state, he cites his work negotiating with gas companies to regulate methane leaks, a major source of climate emissions, as a national model.

"If climate change policy becomes synonymous in the U.S. psyche with higher utility bills, rising taxes and lost jobs, we will have missed our shot — and we might not get another one before it's too late," he wrote in an op-ed last month.

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who recently announced a jobs-focused presidential campaign, has also praised the "immense climate-related benefits and economic benefits" of natural gas, a growing industry in his state.

Others are still working out their approach. Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, faced criticism for voting to lift a decades-old ban on oil exports, which environmental groups worried would discourage countries from transitioning to clean energy. O’Rourke's campaign defended the move, arguing oil production faced stricter environmental regulations in America, but also said he now opposes lifting the ban under Trump.