Democratic Hopefuls Lay Out Radically Different Approaches on Climate and Natural Gas

At an MSNBC forum Thursday intended to allow Democratic presidential candidates to spell out their plans to deal with climate, Senator Bernie Sanders avoided talking about solutions and instead doubled down on past calls to criminally prosecute executives at oil and gas companies. Meanwhile, Senator Michael Bennet and Representative Tim Ryan both took a more rational path, emphasizing how natural gas will play an important role in a low carbon future.

To justify his bombastic claims, Sanders laid out the same tired activist talking points that have been debunked time and time again:

“Now, I wish I could tell you I had a 16-point plan that would do this, but at the end of the day you have executives in the fossil fuel industry, in the oil companies, coal companies, gas companies – Their scientists know exactly what they’re doing. In fact, as you know, there’s strong evidence that ExxonMobil, their scientists were telling them – what for decades – that the product that they are producing is destroying the planet. So how do you deal with executives who are in companies making billions of dollars a year in profit, and the product that they are producing – oh, happens to be destroying the planet? You got that? You got to deal with that.” (emphasis added)

MSNBC moderator Chris Hayes followed up with a question about how Sanders’ approach would differ from the current ongoing climate litigation against energy producers – cases that so far has been dismissed in federal court for San Francisco and Oakland and New York City. In both cases, judges ruled that climate change is an issue best left to Congress and the Executive branch – not the courts.

Brushing aside any potential legal obstacles and that fact that he has no legal background, Sanders instead emphasized his own thinking on the issue:

“I’m not a lawyer, and I’ll need a good attorney general to help me out on this one, but this is what I think. It is one thing, you’re producing a product, and you produce the product and then you learn that the product that you’re producing is killing people, right? …But what do you do if executives knew that the product they were producing was destroying the planet and they continue to do it? Do you think that that might be subject to criminal charges?” (emphasis added)

Bennet, Ryan Make the Case for Natural Gas as Transition Fuel

Earlier in the forum, Senator Michael Bennet struck a tone more conciliatory tone and made the case for natural gas as bridge fuel to renewable energy. Natural gas has played a significant role in allowing the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as U.S. GHG emissions dropped by 14 percent from 1990 to 2017 while natural gas production increased by 51 percent over the same time period.

When asked to elaborate on natural gas as a bridge fuel, Bennet responded:

“If you’re going to take the position that the answer to our climate issues is banning all fracking now, you have to contend with the lack of coal displacement that would have resulted.”

Indeed, the transition to natural gas has done more to mitigate CO2 emissions from electric generation than renewable resources. Since 2005, natural gas has prevented over two billion metric tons of CO2, accounting for about 63 percent of the total savings.

Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio expressed a similar viewpoint as Sen. Bennet, noting the important role natural gas has to play in combating climate change – as well as mentioning the irrationality of banning fossil fuels. As Rep. Ryan stated:

“We aren’t going to be able to power the country in two years on renewable. So, there’s got to be some way for us to go from natural gas. And natural gas has displaced coal and that has been a net benefit for the environment.”

Ryan also spoke about the role of natural gas in providing job growth and economic benefits, stating:

“There are a lot of jobs tied to [natural gas] …on my way to the Pittsburgh airport, there is a $5 billion natural gas cracker plant…there’s 6-7,000 union construction jobs building that. Every union all in the region is empty and these guys make between $80,000 – $120,000 a year. Five years ago, everyone was saying how great natural gas was. There is another one going to be built in Ohio.”

Climate benefits and economic benefits, all provided by natural gas.

Instead of pushing for long-shot lawsuits that will do nothing to address climate change, Sanders should take a note from the others and face facts: the oil and gas industry is a significant part of the solution, not the enemy on climate.

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