The politics of energy is a more partisan issue in the United States than in any other Western democracy. For Republicans, energy is a matter of American economic growth and geopolitical strength. For most Democrats, it is about climate change.
At the start of 2020, both Donald Trump and Joe Biden worried that energy would threaten their respective electoral prospects. Convinced that he could win on a platform that hyped jobs and living standards, Trump’s main concern was that Opec+, the 2016 alliance between Saudi-led Opec and Russia, would increase oil prices, denting American wallets and costing him votes. For Biden, his party’s growing interest in a Green New Deal risked leaving him vulnerable to a primary challenger, such as Bernie Sanders, promising rapid decarbonisation and an immediate ban on shale oil and gas production.
By the summer, both had revised their calculations. Last March, Trump had to stop an Opec+ divorce between Russia and Saudi Arabia in order to reverse a price collapse that was threatening America’s heavily indebted shale energy sector. And, having defeated Sanders & Co in the Democratic primaries, Biden spent the campaign disowning his more radical debate one-liners on fossil fuels, especially those on shale drilling.
Yet the energy divide between the two parties remained central to this week’s presidential election. The divide arises in part from the unwillingness of so many Republicans to acknowledge the reality and dangers of climate change. This attitude is politically conditioned by Sino-American geopolitical rivalry and the fact that over the past five years the US has become the world’s largest oil and gas producer.
Decarbonisation for the US means dismantling an oil and gas industry that received large investment following the 2008 financial crash, and which employs more than ten million people. While shale output has boomed for much of the past decade, the finances of individual US states are highly vulnerable to fluctuations in oil prices: after the 2014 oil price slump, tax revenues in North Dakota fell by around a third.
Decarbonisation also means relinquishing the US’s newfound energy power. Trump adheres to conventional Republican wisdom when he says that a move away from fossil fuels compromises American geopolitical strength. In 2016, almost all the party’s primary candidates attacked the 2015 Paris agreement for allowing China to burn large volumes of coal for longer than the US and, in principle, pushing Americans to curtail oil consumption while China continued to fill Moscow’s oil coffers.
For all his high-minded rhetoric on the climate, Barack Obama was far from indifferent to Republican thinking on this issue. The commitments Obama made to reduce American emissions largely rested on substituting shale gas, not renewables, for coal in electricity generation. After the second presidential debate between Trump and Biden in October, spokespersons for the Biden campaign were quick to clarify his statement that he would “transition away from the oil industry”. What Biden really meant, they argued, was that he would end federal oil subsidies.
For both parties, questions around Sino-American rivalry and foreign energy dependency cannot be avoided. Even Trump – often tempted by braggadocio on the subject of supposed American energy sovereignty – recognised that the US is dangerously dependent on China for critical minerals, such as barite and graphite, some of which are essential for solar and wind power. In September, he declared a national emergency to expand the American mining industry.
For Democrats, the assumption that serious Sino-American cooperation is possible has been tested to destruction since the 2014 bilateral agreement that laid the groundwork for the US-China Paris agreement on climate change. Xi Jinping’s “Made in China 2025” strategy, which aims to transform China into an advanced-tech economy, has turned renewable energy infrastructure into overt geopolitical competition. Trump’s trade and technology war against China, meanwhile, established a broad bipartisan consensus in Washington that Beijing should be treated as a strategic economic rival. The pandemic, instability in Hong Kong and the plight of the Uighurs have all added additional moral righteousness to the “confront China” cause.
Xi Jinping appears well aware of the geopolitical predicament that energy creates in Washington, DC. In telling the United Nations assembly in September that China will be carbon-neutral by 2060, Xi knows he can exploit the European Union’s impatience with the US.
As China’s coal-fired capacity has grown since US-China relations deteriorated in 2017 – with the coal lobby in Beijing arguing that China should make full use of its domestic supply to reduce foreign energy dependency – Xi can use higher carbon emissions as a threat.
Making the climate the overriding priority requires détente with China. But the political space for this does not really exist in the US right now. For the Democrats, retreating from the trade war also risks making their climate commitments incoherent. The Green New Deal is a national economic project. It is supposed to create millions of new US jobs in renewable energy manufacturing and technology, not replay the early 2000s, when several million American manufacturing jobs disappeared to China.
In the White House, there is no avoiding the geopolitics of energy. This deep, stridently expressed conflict between the two parties issues from the torturous entanglement of climate and energy realism in the age of shale gas, China’s ascendancy and rapid ecological degradation.
This article appears in the 04 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, American chaos