Former Vice President Joe Biden appeared to reverse course on his support for coal at the second Democrat presidential debate, despite having championed a “clean” form of the energy source throughout the early Obama years
Under attack from Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) at the debate for only proposing “middle ground solutions” to climate change, Biden was asked by CNN moderator Dana Bash to clear up his stance on fossil fuels.
“Just to clarify, would there be any place for fossil fuels, including coal and fracking, in a Biden administration,” Bash asked.
It is unclear if Biden understood the question as his answer was far from clear. But he did seem to express support for banning coal and fracking outright.
“No, we would work it out,” the 76-year-old Democrat frontrunner said. “We would make sure it’s eliminated, and no more subsidies for either one of those, any fossil fuel.”
Biden’s answer, which if accurate, is far more radical than anything he’s previously pronounced on the topic. Earlier this year, the former vice president released a plan to tackle climate change that made no mention of eliminating coal or fracking. It did, however, call for helping communities that are heavily dependent on the coal industry transition to other jobs.
Biden’s campaign did not return requests for clarification on his position for this story.
The uncertainty surrounding Biden’s position is underscored by the fluctuating stances he has taken on coal over the past two-decades.
In 2007, shortly after announcing his second presidenital campaign, Biden was asked during an interview with Bill Maher to rate coal, terrorism, and high fructose corn syrup in terms of which was more likely to kill “your average American.”
Biden, who often touts the fact that he authored the very first climate change bill in the U.S. Senate, responded by ranking coal a higher threat than terrorism.
“Air that has too much coal in it, corn syrup next, then a terrorist attack,” he said. “But that is not in any way to diminish the fact that a terrorist attack is real. … But hundreds of thousands of people die and their lives are shortened because of coal plants, coal-fired plants and because of corn syrup.”
Biden echoed a similarly tough line in August 2007, telling Grist he did not envision a role for “clean coal” — a phrase used to describe technological advancements that limit the pollution emitted through the excavation and burning of coal — if the country became energy independent, as his campaign pledged.
“I don’t think there’s much of a role for clean coal in energy independence, but I do think there’s a significant role for clean coal in the bigger picture of climate change,” he said. “Clean-coal technology is not the route to go in the United States, because we have other, cleaner alternatives.”
At the time, Biden elaborated he was willing to invest in the development of “clean coal” provided it was only “for export.”
Biden continued his opposition until he was tapped to serve as Barack Obama’s running mate. As Obama had openly embraced “clean coal” while campaigning through Appalachia, Biden quickly adopted his position. The transition was tenuous as Biden found it difficult to shed his old views.
In September 2008, while campaigning for the Democrat ticket in Ohio, Biden not only reverted to his old position, but also looped Obama in with him.
“We’re not supporting clean coal,” he said when questioned why the duo was supporting the energy source. “Guess what, China is building two every week. Two dirty coal plants. And it’s polluting the United States, it’s causing people to die.”
When pushed, Biden added that if coal plants had to exist, they should only be allowed overseas and not “here in America.”
“China is burning three hundred years of bad coal unless we figure out how to clean their coal up,” he said. “Because it’s going to ruin your lungs and there’s nothing we can do about it. No coal plants here in America. Build them, if they’re going to build them over there, make them clean because they’re killing you.”
The interaction, which was captured on video, went viral and was quickly incorporated into attacks ads by the Republican presidential ticket, led by the late-Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and former Gov. Sarah Palin (D-AK).
In order to downplay the incident and undercut the GOP, Obama’s team claimed Biden’s words were taken out of context.
“Senator Biden’s point is that China is building coal plants with outdated technology every day, and the United States needs to lead by developing clean coal technologies,” a spokesman for the campaign said at the height of the controversy.
After the dustup, Biden stuck to the message on clean coal for the rest of the campaign.
“Barack and I believe that clean coal is part of our energy future, a necessary part, and also a great export capacity,” he told an audience in West Virginia in October 2008.
When Obama and Biden were elected, however, their policies moved increasingly away from “clean coal” and towards the agenda of environmental activists, who wanted to see the energy source eradicated. In 2014, the Obama-Biden administration signaled it was siding with the activists by unveiling new EPA regulations meant to cut carbon emissions by more than 30 percent.
For miners across the country, the action seemed to confirm that Obama and Biden were serious about waging a “war on coal,” as many Republican had previously claimed. To show their displeasure, nearly a thousand members of the United Mine Workers of America, which endorsed Obama in 2008, converged on the EPA building in Washington, D.C. to protest.
“We fought for those progressive causes, and there are people today in the progressive movement who have forgotten us,” one of the union’s leaders said at the time. “If you try to foist this devastation on Appalachia, on our brothers and sisters, we will remember.”
Unfortunately, the union was powerless in the face of the federal government. In total, more than 80,000 coal mining jobs were lost during Obama and Biden’s tenure in the White House, the majority of the losses coming from West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
The plan Biden proposed on Wednesday would go even further toward killing the few mining jobs that still exist in those states. The irony is that Biden has spent most of his campaign to date painting himself as the only Democrat that can bring states like Pennsylvania and Ohio back into the Democrat column after both went for Presidential Donald Trump in 2016.