‘Keep it in the ground’ anti-drilling movement has some liftoff

WASHINGTON – The anti-fossil fuel movement – “Keep It in the Ground” – has been inching toward the mainstream as prominent Democratic politicians ramp up their commitment to combating climate change.

The shift follows an intense and well-funded activist campaign that has mixed closed-door Washington meetings with petition drives during the Iowa caucuses, all attempting to make the case advances in renewable energy technology now allow a radical shift away from fossil fuels.

In November, the Obama administration announced it was putting a moratorium on new coal leases for federal lands, pending a review of the program. Earlier this month, Hillary Clinton was videoed at a campaign rally telling an attendee she wanted to put a moratorium on oil and gas drilling on federal lands – the clip quickly spread across the internet.

“The initial reaction was we’re going to need some time to wrestle with this,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who introduced legislation last year to halt new fossil fuel leases on federal lands. “But this has moved so fast I think we’re going to see more of the Democratic Party signing on. I think it’s very helpful for Hillary Clinton to declare her intentions.”

Until recently, “Keep It in the Ground” – as in leave alone those so far undeveloped deposits of oil, gas and coal – struggled to gain ground even with mainstream environmentalists.

Too impractical, skeptics said. The world has been almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels for almost a century now. Transitioning to clean sources like wind and solar would probably take another century.

“If you do this too quickly, you’re talking a monumental blow to the economy,” said Fadel Gheit, an oil and gas analyst with the investment bank Oppenheimer & Co. “This cannot happen overnight. The economy is not ready for it. We went from horse drawn carriage to automobile over a period of many decades.”

Whether the moratoriums on fossil fuels come to pass, Democrats’ recent willingness to take a tougher stance on climate change leaves the oil industry the prospect of downsizing in this country. Already the flood of political donations coming from environmentally minded and wealthy investors is getting attention within corporate offices in Houston and beyond, said one U.S. oil executive, who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity.

“You have billionaires like Tom Steyer and George Soros putting enormous amounts of money into this,” he said.

Steyer, a now retired hedge fund billionaire in San Francisco, and his wife are the largest individual political contributor in the country, according to the Center for Responsive Politics – not counting the uncountable sums donated to political campaigns through nonprofits since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.

Since 2014, his group, NextGen Climate, has pumped more than $89?million into political campaigns, pushing candidates to commit to getting the U.S. power supply to 50?percent renewable by 2030. Both Democratic presidential candidates already have signed on, and Steyer appeared to be lobbying for more pledges during a closed-door meeting in Washington last month with Senate Democrats.

Steyer declined a request for an interview. But a spokesman for his group cited recent polls that show Americans shifting towards greater action on climate change. An ABC/Washington Post poll in November showed 63 percent of the country believes climate change is a “serious problem.”

“Across the nation, voters are asking for a plan to address the climate crisis, and presidential candidates are listening,” the group said in a statement.

But would voters go so far as to dramatically shift away from fossil fuels in a matter of 14 years, potentially raising energy costs and devastating the economies of fossil-fuel rich regions like Texas?

Last year, the British bank HSBC issued a report warning investors that moves by governments to limit carbon emissions, along with improving renewable technology and current economic uncertainty, posed the threat that many oil and gas reserves around the world would have to go undrilled.

At the same time, there is plenty of skepticism that the campaign largesse of billionaires like Steyer will translate into actual votes in Washington. Right now, the country remains dependent on oil. Even as wind and solar makes gain on the power grid, the fuel supply of the country’s transportation system – cars, trucks, planes and the like – is more than 90 percent petroleum-based products.

Louis Finkel, executive vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, said as he’s watched the “Keep It in the Ground” movement over the last two years and sees little to indicate they’ve moved beyond the liberal fringe of the environmental movement.

“Just because you have the backing of a couple of billionaires like Tom Steyer doesn’t mean there’s a broad movement. It means they’re well-funded,” he said.

Any carbon reduction scheme faces significant hurdles in the United States. The Republican Party has pushed back against such measures, with many prominent members like presidential candidate Ted Cruz questioning the science of climate change itself. And last week the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily blocked the Obama administration from a plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants, while the legality of the president’s action is decided in the courts.

When Merkley and five other senators introduced what was dubbed the “Keep It in the Ground” bill in early November, it seemed the sort of symbolic legislation that would never again see the light of day. What little news attention it garnered focused on the support of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. But two days later Obama announced he would not approve the Keystone XL pipeline, a seemingly straightforward project to transport Canadian crude to U.S. refineries that galvanized the environmental movement.

Then, in December in Paris, world leaders agreed to work toward dramatic reductions in the amount of carbon mankind pumps into the atmosphere. Add in a primary season where presidential candidates work to appeal to the more ideological wings of their respective parties, and climate change seems to have found its political moment.

Will it last? So far, support for “Keep It in the Ground” among U.S. politicians largely is limited to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and presidential candidates from that party. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, said for now a radical shift away from fossil fuels simply isn’t practical, and he expects the current wave of pledges will fade away.

“I don’t oppose renewables. But I know the world is still going to run on hydrocarbons, and I’d rather we produce them here than buy them from Venezuela,” he said. “We’re in the middle of campaign season. Times will change.”

For now, politicians supporting the “Keep It in the Ground” movement are eager to capitalize on the momentum. Earlier this month, as Obama was preparing to announce a $10.25 a barrel tax on crude oil, his administration was criticized by ten Democratic senators from coastal states for a plan announced last year to expand offshore drilling into the Atlantic Ocean, as well as within the Gulf of Mexico.

“Given the prevailing science and critical need to quickly reduce carbon emissions, we believe it is imperative that the federal government does not offer new leases, and make every effort to terminate existing, nonproducing leases,” the senators wrote.