Democrats cut fossil-fuel promises from party platform in snub to climate activists

By Leslie Kaufman on 8/20/2020

NEW YORK (Bloomberg) --Day three of the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday featured meetings of the Black and Hispanic caucuses, the run-up to Senator Kamala Harris’s primetime speech, and delicate attempts by the Democratic National Committee and Joe Biden’s presidential campaign to explain why it dropped language from its platform about eliminating subsidies for fossil fuels.

In the weeks before the convention, delegates approved a draft of the party platform known as the “manager’s mark,” which included an amendment stating that “Democrats support eliminating tax breaks and subsidies for fossil fuels.” By the time final draft was officially passed on night one of the convention, that language had disappeared.

The DNC platform is crafted by a committee of 15 members including politicians and key supporters such as union heads, but any party delegate can offer an amendment to be voted on. While neither party’s platform holds much sway over what a president or any of its members will do if elected, it is a public statement of values, and as such is closely watched by interest groups. As Rhiana Gunn-Wright, climate director at the Roosevelt Institute think tank, put it: “I don’t want to speculate on what removing the language from the platform means, but the reality is that it sends a signal about the potential limits of the Democratic Party’s commitment to climate action—and what they are willing to face.”

The removal, first reported by the Huffington Post, shocked environmental activists. The 2016 platform included similar language, making this a noticeable about-face. Both Biden and Harris, who mounted her own campaign for the presidency before signing on as Biden’s running mate, have made pledges to eliminate the subsidies, so the change also appears to put the party at odds with its nominees.

The DNC issued a statement saying the amendment wasn’t stripped out, but rather was “incorrectly included” in the first place. A spokesperson declined to give a reason for the change, but did say that the party hadn’t acted unilaterally: both Biden’s campaign and the campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders, as well as those who originally submitted the amendment, agreed that it should be withdrawn.

Stef Feldman, policy director for the Biden campaign, released a statement Wednesday morning saying the former vice president remained “steadfast” in his commitment to eliminate subsidies for polluting fuels during his first year in office. Later in the day, the Biden campaign told Bloomberg Green that the DNC’s version of events was accurate but otherwise didn’t address the question of why it agreed to remove an amendment that was in line with its own policy positions. The Sanders campaign didn’t respond immediately to requests for comment.

John Laesch, an environmental activist and platform committee member from Illinois, said on Twitter that he was the one who submitted the amendment after he noticed that the 2016 language, supplied by 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben, was no longer in the platform. He disputed the DNC’s statement. “They deleted the amendment without my consent,” he wrote.

Activists mostly chose to castigate the DNC, which in 2018 reversed a policy that had previously prohibited it from accepting donations from fossil fuel companies, and largely spared the candidate himself. RL Miller, founder of grassroots advocacy group Climate Hawks Vote and a Democratic delegate, declared herself furious on Twitter and blamed “the corporate wing of the DNC is trying to undo Biden's campaign promise.”

Julian Brave NoiseCat, vice president of policy and strategy at the progressive advocacy group Data for Progress, released a statement excoriating the party for betraying grassroots activists. He added in a statement to Bloomberg Green: “With the stroke of a pen, the party has undermined months of coalition building to placate a voter that does not exist."

Not everyone wanted to assign blame, however. Paul Bledsoe, a strategic advisor to the Progressive Policy Institute, saw the change as a strategic move by the party to protect their candidate from political attacks. “Biden is proposing the most ambitious clean energy transition plan ever,” he said in an interview. “My guess is this is to preempt Republicans from spreading misinformation to scare people into thinking Democrats are going to take away the oil and gas they need today.” He pointed to government programs that subsidize fuel oil in the winter Northeast as an example of a popular program Democrats weren’t looking to get rid of, and which could be disingenuously turned against them.

“This is going to prevent Facebooks ads that lie and scare people,” Bledsoe said.

Estimates on how much the United States spends per year in energy subsidies vary widely. At the high end, a 2019 study by the International Monetary Fund calculated that the U.S. devoted $649 billion of support to fossil fuels in 2015 alone, which would put the country behind only China in its fossil investment. A study published in 2017 by Oil Change International priced direct federal support in the U.S. at about $15 billion annually.

Oil and gas producers see the issue differently. What climate advocates view as subsidies, they argue are tax loopholes and deductions available to all industries, not just the energy sector. Many of these predate the arrival of industrial-scale renewable energy by years, if not decades. Bethany Aronhalt, a spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute, was unequivocal in her response to the language. “Perhaps it was removed from the party platform because you can’t eliminate subsidies that don’t exist,” she said.

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