Charting the Left’s Misguided War on Fossil Fuels

For several decades now, there has been general widespread agreement across the ideological spectrum that fossil fuel development is, on balance, a good thing. Over the years, America’s vast oil, natural gas and coal reserves have collectively brought about significant economic development, job creation and additional revenues for governments. Today, however, a growing segment of the political left is waging a misguided war against all carbon-based energy.

The recent Keystone XL pipeline saga serves as an illuminating example of this increased hostility toward fossil fuels. At the outset, Keystone enjoyed what appeared to be enough widespread support to ensure approval by the Obama Administration. In fact, in 2011, National Journal surveyed its “energy insiders” and found that 91 percent thought that the Obama Administration would approve of the pipeline, and 71 percent thought it would happen by the end of that year. Even four years later, an attempt by Congressional Republicans to jumpstart the approval process of the pipeline garnered support from no fewer than nine Senate and 28 House Democrats.

President Obama’s ultimate rejection of Keystone came after the environmental lobby was able to successfully carry out a well-designed and coordinated pressure campaign against the pipeline. As well-known environmentalist and author Bill McKibben put it, “We had no real hope of stopping Keystone – as the National Journal poll indicated, this seemed the most done of deals – but we also had no real choice but to try.”

Try they did, and they unfortunately ended up succeeding in a big way. Not only was the environmental movement successful in stopping Keystone, but they also laid the groundwork for increased resistance to fossil fuel development. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, an interstate pipeline project that will deliver natural gas from the Marcellus shale in West Virginia to electricity markets in Virginia and North Carolina, is currently generating criticism similar in nature to what Keystone garnered. What used to be fairly routine and even mundane energy infrastructure projects are now becoming flashpoints of controversy.

On the campaign trail, Senator Bernie Sanders steadfastly embraced these principles espoused by the environmental movement. In addition to opposing Keystone, the Vermont Senator also spoke relentlessly about the need to shift away from fossil fuels and championed the proposed “Keep It in the Ground Act,” legislation that would ban all fossil fuel leases on federally-controlled public lands. While Sanders did not ultimately clinch his party’s nomination, he remains an influential voice within the modern progressive movement and is continuing to work hard to move the Democratic Party leftward on many key issues, including energy and environmental policy.

And Sanders isn’t alone. His principal opponent during the Democratic primary process, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, has, according to the New York Times, “moved strikingly to the left on climate issues, including opposing the Keystone XL Pipeline, offshore drilling and, indeed, most forms of fracking.”

This leftward shift in the candidates’ thinking is also reflected in the leftward shift of the Democratic Party’s recently adopted platform. Decidedly anti-fossil fuel, the current iteration of the platform opposes construction of the Keystone pipeline, aims to derive 50 percent of electricity from so-called clean sources by 2026, and supports investigation into companies and organizations that engage in supposed “climate denial.” Strikingly, the Party also jettisoned its long-standing support for an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, much to the delight of McKibben, a member of the platform committee. These changes suggest that the environmental movement – once considered by many to be a “fringe” element – is now a mainstream entity within the Democratic Party with a growing influence over policymaking.

In recent years, however, there have been examples of progressive lawmakers recognizing the value of fossil fuels. Just last year, for instance, as a part of a larger budget deal, Congress was able to muster enough bipartisan support to lift the four-decade-old ban on crude oil exports. According to various reports, Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) played a critical role in securing enough Democratic votes in the Senate to pass the measure. In April 2012, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a strident advocate for imposing additional regulations on the fossil fuel industry, said that he was “willing to defer cracking down on natural gas because the economic benefits to the nation have been so great.” Similarly, House Minority Whip Representative Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) praised the approval of the new Cove Point liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal as “an important necessary step toward bringing new, well-paying jobs to Calvert County.”

This longstanding albeit tenuous understanding of the value of fossil fuels has been a rare point of agreement in a Congress all too often mired in discord and gridlock. Yet with the Democratic Party’s platform now starkly opposed to not just the Keystone project, but also to the development of fossil fuels broadly speaking, progressive lawmakers may soon face mounting pressure to oppose pro-fossil fuel policy positions they may have once supported.

Going forward, will projects like Keystone or efforts to increasingly liberalize the nation’s energy trade policies enjoy as much widespread bipartisan support as they have in the past?

As pressure to oppose all things fossil fuels grows more difficult to circumvent, probably not.

In Depth: Energy

It is difficult – and perhaps even impossible – to overstate the relationship between readily available access to safe, affordable and reliable energy and individual prosperity and economic wellbeing. This is because energy is an input to virtually everything we produce, consume and enjoy in society. Think for a minute…

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