Joe Biden is the latest to genuflect at the green altar, saying in the last US presidential candidates’ debate “I would transition away from the oil industry, yes. The oil industry pollutes, significantly. It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.” Meaning what, exactly? It would be nice if the answer is “nothing”. Alas, it probably isn’t.
Like many politicians, Biden is given to empty utterances. But they are based on specific mistaken ideas. For one, like a great many people inside and outside politics, he exaggerates the capacity of government to do things. For another, like many inside and outside the United States, the capacity of the American president to do things.
NBC reports that Biden recently said “if he wins the Nov. 3 election he will ask Congress to pass a comprehensive COVID-19 bill that he would sign within the first 10 days of taking office” and then quoted him that “I’m not going to shut down the economy. I’m not going to shut down the country. I’m going to shut down the virus.” Apparently no journalist asked to see a draft of the bill or why he didn’t get a colleague to introduce it already. Or “Joe, if somebody somewhere knows how to ‘shut down the virus’, and told you about it, don’t you think they’d also have told someone else who would have done it by now in some other country instead of waiting until the United States of America has an election and, two months later, inaugurates a president?”
Now back to phasing out the oil industry. Again the egotistical, un-Constitutional “I would transition away from the oil industry” is meaningless. The President can’t do anything of the sort unilaterally and many people know it including, we hope, Biden himself, especially given his long experience in both the legislative and executive branches.
Then there’s “The oil industry pollutes, significantly.” Actually the oil industry pollutes far less than it once did both upstream and downstream due to a combination of stricter rules, greater corporate responsibility and far more public awareness. But when Biden says “pollutes” he means emits CO2 with a nod and a wink. And again, many people including possibly he himself know that CO2 is not “pollution”. When you breathe in pollution you gag. You get sick. Plants and animals die. Stuff like that.
When you breathe in CO2, you breathe it out again. You feel fine. Plants flourish and animals eat the plants. Stuff like that.
Then there’s his boilerplate “It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.” Which is a double falsehood, because on the one hand it pushes the whole thing away over the horizon; he will transition away from the oil industry but not now, not completely, not a lot, some day eventually a bit, soon if you’re green, later if you’re say an oil worker. (Though Biden urged them a year ago to all become software engineers or something.) And not, naturally, until all those renewables turn out to be better anyway so there’s no pain anywhere, just gain.
Then there’s his desire in the 2nd U.S. presidential debate to have the U.S. be emissions-free by 2025, though apparently he really meant by 2050 with only the energy-sector being at “net-zero” by 2035. He has a plan, just no details.
So it’s OK because nobody thinks he really intends to do it. He’s just checked the green boxes on his way to election victory. Nothing to see here, folks. Right?
Unfortunately, maybe not right. It’s only a green box because a whole lot of people believe, or think they believe, that you need to get rid of the oil industry because otherwise the planet will catch fire, flood, dry up and crack, blow away and so forth, and that you can get rid of it at minimal cost because reliable alternatives are ready to go. And once you promise to do something a lot of people want you to do and it helps get you elected, and you believe it yourself, you tend to act on it.
As the considerably more constitutionally empowered Justin Trudeau has done on his own incautious 2017 “We can't shut down the oil sands tomorrow. We need to phase them out” which turned out to be a very good indicator of what his administration would use all the tools at its disposal to do, although it rather predictably turned out that his follow-up “We need to manage the transition off our dependence on fossil fuels” drastically overstated both his ability and determination to “manage” the transition rather than simply deep-sixing a vital part of an already hurting Canadian economy even before the pandemic hit.
As with “build back better” the fact that words are empty and in significant measure insincere doesn’t mean they won’t come back to haunt us.