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Biden’s Setting Himself Up to Get Blamed for Lost Blue-Collar Jobs

Big Oil is collapsing. Democrats can either plan for it and win its workers or ignore the problem—and get punished for it.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Democratic Party sure knows how to piss off climate advocates. Tuesday, party leaders cut a promise to end fossil fuel subsidies from their 2020 platform, telling The Huffington Post that the pledge shouldn’t have been in the final draft to begin with.

It was an odd moment in a generally odd convention. But it was also consistent with the week’s heavy nostalgia for the Obama era. Despite sporting climate plans vastly more ambitious than they had four years ago, Democrats have mostly been tiptoeing around the flailing fossil fuel industry. Ending subsidies—a mainstream proposal at this point—had been one of the few moves establishment politicians were willing to make against oil and gas profits. As climate advocates this week pointed out, that’s a huge liability for the planet. But it could also cost the party critical and easily winnable votes, sinking a potential Biden presidency before it’s even left the port.

Democrats have avoided earnest conversations about what to do with the bankruptcy-ridden fossil fuel industry. They’ve focused instead on the positive side of the ledger: decarbonizing the power sector, building electric cars, and scaling up clean energy deployment. Limiting fossil fuel production at its source (so-called “supply-side” policy) has long been a third rail for politicians on both sides of the aisle, and presidential candidate Joe Biden’s plans barely gesture at it: banning new permits on federal land, stopping extraction in previously protected areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and canceling the Trump administration’s blank check on pollution. That leaves the door open for domestic producers to keep exporting their products and emissions abroad, as they did in great quantity under the Obama administration when Biden was vice president.

Democrats’ ambivalence toward the industry, in addition to being fatal to serious climate efforts, sidesteps a conversation that’s now unavoidable in parts of the country they should be trying to win. Texas alone lost 39,000 direct oil and gas jobs in the first half of 2020. Oilfield services companies—having laid off some 100,000 people amid the pandemic downturn—are now employing fewer people than they have since before the shale boom began, which could decimate local and state tax revenues. Appalachian shale bankruptcies were climbing even before the pandemic, to say nothing of the region’s decade-long nosedive in coal. And now Louisiana, Oklahoma, Colorado, and New Mexico are all facing major fossil fuel job losses. Industry experts don’t predict an easy recovery, a view bolstered by major multinational oil companies selling off their investments in the unconventional high-cost drilling that fueled the last decade’s boom.

Establishment Democrats, but also relative progressives championing a so-called just transition, continue to treat the fossil fuel industry as a reliable source of well-paid union work instead of a rapidly sinking ship. As a result, they’re mostly unprepared to rescue its passengers. The Biden climate platform allows for decades of continued fossil fuel extraction; it doesn’t seem to have a plan for supporting the millions of people whose livelihoods are threatened by the industry’s collapse—a phenomenon only tangentially related to climate measures.

The clean energy jobs touted by the climate edge of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda won’t necessarily help areas hit by the downturn in fossil fuels, and there’s ample cause for skepticism about his promises for a clean and revitalized manufacturing sector; replacing rig work with solar panel manufacturing is a lot harder than it sounds. Today’s plans are an improvement on the old trope of teaching miners to code but still aren’t facing the devastating collapse of the fossil fuel industry head-on.

This could be easy fodder for the presumptive Democratic nominee: Republicans are bailing out fossil fuel executives who are using bankruptcy to sew themselves Golden Parachutes, leaving roughnecks and miners at the mercy of private equity vultures scrapping their medical coverage and stripping companies for parts. A Biden administration could pledge support for the people and places left behind by the GOP, promising jobs and healthcare, even taking a cue from Senator Tammy Duckworth’s Marshall Plan for Coal Country.

During the primary, now vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris’s “Climate for the People” platform proposed convening major emitters in 2021 for the “first-ever global negotiation of the cooperative managed decline of fossil fuel production.” Such an effort could go a long way toward addressing the concerns of fossil fuel-dependent communities both in the U.S. and around the world. But voters have heard little about that plan since she joined the Democratic ticket.

That’s a shame. Republicans and their donors leading the oil and gas industry are already preparing to blame their own failures on supposedly radical environmental policies from Democrats. A struggling fossil fuel industry will be prime ammo when and if Democrats try to pass climate legislation through Congress, should Biden get elected. The GOP will follow their trusted playbook, pitting Biden’s well-heeled fleet of “climate donors” from tech and Wall Street against hardscrabble fossil fuel industry workers in some hyped-up “War on Oil and Gas.”

A transition off of fossil fuels isn’t some far-off theoretical policy debate: It’s happening now in the most unjust way possible. Failing to reckon with that reality sets up Democrats in 2022 and 2024 to take the blame for the industry’s decline. This is all easy to avoid, but Democrats have to be willing to build a generous safety net instead of catering to deficit hawks. And they have to start a frank conversation within the Democratic coalition about the fact that fossil fuel jobs are already disappearing—even without robust climate policy.