Why Are We Still Looking for Oil and Gas?

If an artist were to choose colors for portraits of public officials to represent their records on climate change, one color would suffice for Donald Trump: charcoal black. How better to capture the president’s efforts to increase the extraction of coal, oil and gas at a time when emissions from these fuels are likely to expose tens of millions of people to life-threatening heat waves, coastal flooding, severe storms and water shortages.

But to be honest, the portraits of most of the world’s progressive leaders wouldn’t be much brighter. The United States was well on its way to becoming the world’s largest producer of fossil fuels before Donald Trump. Even today, with only a few decades left for us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without potentially catastrophic long-term consequences, far too many officials of all political stripes continue to expand the amount of fossil fuels we now extract and burn.

It was President Barack Obama, after all, who described “all of the above” as the preferred nonchoice of energy sources. He enthusiastically embraced the fracking boom that is now primed to unleash a tidal wave of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. His successful effort to end the country’s export ban on fossil fuels encouraged industry to go after every ounce of oil and gas it could find — and it is finding plenty. Taken together, President Obama’s legacy is a nation that produces more oil and natural gas than Saudi Arabia.

Climate policy can get complicated fast, but there is really only one question to ask when considering an official’s climate bona fides: Will his or her policies lead to an increase or decrease in the amount of fossil fuels coming out of the ground? One peer-reviewed study found that to have a 50 percent chance of meeting the Paris accord’s target of staying “well below” 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit of additional warming, we must refrain from burning much of the fossil fuel reserves currently listed as assets on the balance sheets of energy companies.

Despite this, Exxon Mobil and its corporate brethren are actively looking for additional oil and gas. Given this rampant corporate irrationality, officials who maintain — much less loosen — policies that enable companies to continue their extractive business models simply aren’t serious about addressing climate change.

Judged against this supply-side measure, some politicians considered climate heroes are more appropriately painted in shades of gray.

Let’s look at Jerry Brown of California to understand this conundrum. Mr. Brown was the nation’s most aggressive governor advancing climate solutions — but only when it came to reducing demand for energy. He pushed his state to enact what at the time was the nation’s most aggressive measure to limit the percentage of electricity derived from fossil fuels; he was certainly committed to a bullet train; and he drove greater efficiencies in everything that uses energy, from cars to appliances to buildings.

But let’s turn to the all-important supply side. California is one of the leading producers of crude oil in the country. Nearly 5.5 million Californians live within a mile of an oil well and of those 1.8 million — nearly 92 percent of whom are people of color — live in areas already burdened by pollution. Relentless efforts by environmental and public health advocates to convince Governor Brown to at least minimize drilling in and around the most congested neighborhoods for health and safety reasons, in addition to sheer climate necessity, failed.

Certainly, money generated from extraction is an important revenue source for California. But if Mr. Brown couldn’t leave a carbon-based nickel on the table, and if, ultimately, the same will be said for his successor, Gavin Newsom, how can we expect Donald Trump to do more?

A progressive leader who is creating even greater climate dissonance is our neighbor to the north, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Recently, just after his government declared a “climate emergency,” it approved a $5.5 billion expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline that links Alberta’s tar sands to British Columbia. Mr. Trudeau’s government bought the pipeline to ensure its expansion. That the government had to step in underscored the lack of a business rationale to transport bitumen, one of the world’s dirtiest oils, 600 miles across Canada for shipment to Asia.

But Mr. Trudeau would not let the pipeline go. His devotion to one of the world’s more destructive projects makes President Trump’s embrace of Big Oil look like a schoolboy crush. Keeping coal and Canada’s carbon-intensive tar sands in the ground are at the top of every list I’ve seen about what we must do to avoid full-blown climate catastrophe. If this pipeline expansion is completed, no matter how committed Mr. Trudeau may be to green energy, he will be remembered as the person at the center of losing our last, best opportunity to safeguard what remains of our fragile climate system. His government will own it.

If you want to see an official who acts as the science demands, look at Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, whose actions have distinguished him as a politician who takes the climate emergency seriously. He announced in 2014 that his administration would ban fracking despite the abundance of natural gas buried in its substantial slice of the Marcellus and Utica Shales. New York has killed or delayed two major fossil fuel projects, the Constitution and Williams gas pipelines. And at the end of this year’s legislative session, Mr. Cuomo signed legislation authorizing one of the most ambitious climate plans in the world to ween the state’s entire economy (not just its energy sector) from fossil fuels. The governor is acting as if our life depends on it.

Those of you who care about whether the next president will do what she or he can to slow or prevent the next great extinction and mitigate human misery should follow closely whether a candidate is serious about keeping fossil fuels in the ground or is focused only on reducing demand for them. If it’s the latter, the colors for the candidate’s portrait won’t brighten anyone’s day.

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