Clinton Tries to Stake Out New Turf on Energy Policy

The Democratic front-runner has morphed her well-worn positions, like boosting natural gas production, in her race against Bernie Sanders. But energy-market realities mean it may not matter.


In recent weeks, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has moved to the left on energy policy, seemingly yanked by the Bernie Sanders insurgency. Much as happened with other issues, such as free trade, Clinton has apparently shifted her position on things she once espoused. She has begun questioning the U.S. energy revolution she once sought to export as secretary of state, and her campaign rhetoric on everything from the Keystone pipeline to offshore oil exploration to the future of coal has been colored by her need to compete for votes with the Vermont senator.

But unlike in past elections, where energy policy took at least a prominent place, if not center stage, the 2016 race is seemingly about everything but how to power the world’s largest economy. And whoever wins the White House will be unable to undo the U.S. energy boom, which is primarily driven by technology and market forces.

In other words, Clinton’s lurch to the left may not have many practical implications other than underscoring how very unimportant the nuts and bolts of policy proposals have become.

Spokespeople for the Clinton and Sanders campaigns did not respond to requests for comment.

It’s clear that the Hillary Clinton who served as chief U.S. diplomat is not the same person on the campaign trail. That’s fruit of the strident divide inside the Democratic Party, and shows up most clearly in things like Clinton’s sudden disavowal of big free trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which she described as the “gold standard” while working as America’s top diplomat. The candidate who declared her opposition to the Keystone pipeline from Canada is the same person who leaned toward approving it for years while secretary of state.

Most recently, Clinton took a strident line on the future of hydraulic fracturing, which has fueled the U.S. oil and gas boom. This month, during a debate in Michigan, Clinton unloaded on fracking and its potential environmental perils. “By the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place,” she said. That generated plenty of concern in the U.S. oil patch.

One reason that opposition to energy development could be a vote-winner is, paradoxically, the huge U.S. energy boom itself, which has dramatically lowered prices and made the cost of energy largely a non-issue during the campaign.

“Three or four years ago, oil was $100 a barrel, and now it’s $35, and natural gas remains incredibly cheap. That takes the pressure off energy development for politicians,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former official in the Bill Clinton administration who now specializes in energy and climate policy. “I think she just has her ear to the ground a little bit.” (Bledsoe is not affiliated with Hillary Clinton’s campaign in any way.)

But her campaign rhetoric is a sharp contrast to the State Department’s efforts to spread the U.S. fracking revolution far and wide on her watch.

The awkwardly-named Unconventional Gas Technical Engagement Program, for example, was started in 2010 to share know-how with almost a score of countries around the world and enable them to benefit from a surge of cleaner-burning natural gas. As secretary, Clinton extolled the “surging” U.S. oil and natural gas production unleashed by fracking. Even after she left office, she was still singing the virtues of the gas revolution: In a 2014 paean to the virtues of natural gas, she applauded its benefits for the environment and the economy.

“The boom in domestic gas production is an example of American innovation changing the game,” she said, though she underscored the need to minimize environmental damage from fracking.

But Sanders rejects Clinton’s efforts to move closer to his policies, at least on the campaign trail, dismissing them as primary posturing. “The question is not what she says. The question is what her record has been and what she will do if she is elected president,” he told the New Yorker.

The oil and gas lobby, the American Petroleum Institute, doesn’t comment on candidates, but defended its turf. “Americans don’t want to see significant costs for energy, the loss of tens of thousands of well-paying American jobs, billions of dollars in federal revenue lost, and a weakened national security,” an API spokesman told Foreign Policy.

Even positions Clinton has held for years, such as promoting clean energy, have been Bernied. “We’re going to put a lot of coal companies and coal miners out of business,” she said at an Ohio town hall this month. While Clinton — like President Barack Obama — has for years sought to promote renewable energies like wind and solar power, rather than coal-fired power plants, she hadn’t previously attacked the economic livelihood of coal miners so directly.

Republicans pounced on her comments, which echoed then-Sen. Obama’s pledge in 2008 to “bankrupt” coal companies. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called Clinton’s ideas “callous” and “wrong.”

The Clinton campaign later clarified that she meant that market forces including cheap natural gas, rather than government policies, are hammering the coal industry. But her comments were largely perceived as a major gaffe and overshadowed her $30 billion plan to find a viable economic alternative for people in coal country who’ve been mauled by global, structural economic changes.

Clinton seems to be a target for criticism of her energy policies, in large part, because she has some. Republican policy prescriptions range from reiterations of past platforms, such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s vow to defenestrate the Environmental Protection Agency and to boost domestic energy production, to front-runner Donald Trump’s sparse and erratic references to how he would approach the nexus of U.S. energy and environmental policy. Although he has no discernible energy policy per se, Trump has tweeted numerous times about the need to boost oil and gas production while decrying record global temperatures as a Chinese “hoax” to steal jobs.

That creates an odd campaign where ideas become millstones, Bledsoe said. “You can end up penalizing candidates who actually put forward proposals.”

Ultimately, given the nature of the U.S. energy boom, the beginning of U.S. exports of natural gas and crude oil, and market-driven massacres of the coal industry, there is little that any president can really do to redraw the map.

Clinton could not “ban” fracking even if she wanted to, since it is primarily conducted on private land and is largely regulated at the state level. Private companies are exporting liquefied natural gas from huge terminals in the Gulf of Mexico, and only the market will affect that.

Clinton opposes drilling for oil in the Arctic — but so does the oil company that spent $7 billion there drilling a dry hole.

And if Clinton is down on coal’s future as a power source, she’s following the implacable lead of institutions such as JPMorgan and other big banks, which have sharply curtailed financing for any coal-related projects given the fuel’s increasingly dire outlook.

Whether Clinton’s rhetorical shift to the left is a tactical ploy for the primaries, or represents a true change of heart, doesn’t ultimately matter. What is becoming increasingly clear, as she veers to woo starry-eyed Sanders voters and Trump barrels his way toward the nomination while disavowing detailed prescriptions altogether, is that there is one undoubted campaign casualty this year.

“Populism is trumping realism,” wrote Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution recently. “Perhaps the biggest loser of all is public policy.”

Photo credit: SCOTT OLSON/Getty

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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