The first Democratic debate for the 2016 presidential campaign revealed two things. First, for many of the Democrats, energy is one of their top policy priorities for this campaign season. Second, while Republican candidates have generally walked the same line on policy positions, the Democratic candidates have substantial differences in their views for how to address the country’s energy challenges.
“We have a moral responsibility to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy.”
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was the first to address energy issues. Among his top policy priorities came an adamant plea to change the nation’s energy future: “We have a moral responsibility to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy and leave this planet a habitable planet for our children and our grandchildren.”
In this moment, Sanders’ remarks set the tone for many of his arguments throughout the night, as he advocated for radical changes in energy on moral grounds.
Clinton: Energy gives opportunity to create jobs
The only other candidate to discuss energy policy in her introductory remarks was former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. However, in contrast to Sanders’ moral argument, Clinton approached her energy plan from a perspective of how to leverage clean technology and innovation to create jobs: “I’ve put forward specific plans about how we’re going to create more good-paying jobs: By investing in infrastructure and clean energy, by making it possible once again to invest in science and research, and taking the opportunity posed by climate change to grow our economy.”
From this standpoint, Clinton laid out an energy policy that views crisis as opportunity in dealing with pressing issues such as the labor market and economic growth.
Sanders pushes the climate debate forward
Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, former U.S. Senator from Virginia Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee chose not to address energy issues in their opening remarks, but further into the debate, the various approaches to energy policy among the candidates came into clearer view.
When the candidates were asked about the greatest national security threat facing the U.S., Sanders diverged from the others. While all of the other candidates pointed to Iran, the country’s relations in the Middle East or nuclear weapons as the greatest threats to our nation, Sanders focused on reliance on fossil fuels: “The scientific community is telling us that if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to sustainable energy, the planet that we’re going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable. That is a major crisis.”
As a result of his intense focus on energy and climate change, Sanders faced a follow-up question from moderator Anderson Cooper later in the night asking if the Senator from Vermont considered himself to be tougher on climate change issues than his rival Hillary Clinton. Again, Sanders addressed the issues in moral terms and invoked dire consequences for not tackling the problem: “This is a moral issue. The scientists are telling us that we need to move extremely boldly. I am proud that, along with Senator Barbara Boxer, a few years ago, we introduced the first piece of climate change legislation which called for a tax on carbon. And let me also tell you that nothing is gonna happen unless we are prepared to deal with campaign finance reform, because the fossil fuel industry is funding the Republican Party, which denies the reality of climate change…and certainly is not prepared to go forward aggressively…We have got to be extremely aggressive in working with China, India, Russia…The planet—the future of the planet is at stake.”
When prompted for her rebuttal to Sanders’ remarks, Clinton highlighted her own credentials in fighting climate change, telling a story about a meeting in 2009 in Copenhagen where she and President Obama “broke in” to a secret meeting held by the Chinese delegation to ensure they would join an international climate agreement. “We knew that we had to get them to agree to something,” she said. “Because there will be no effective efforts against climate change unless China and India join with the rest of the world.”
She noted that the meeting led to the first international agreement that China has signed on climate and gave credit to President Obama for taking the lead on this issue.
O’Malley big on alternatives
But not every candidate paid respects to the current President—particularly on energy policy. O’Malley took aim at President Obama’s “all-of-the-above” energy policy and labeled his own take on the issue as a “revolution,” stressing the need for more action on alternatives such as wind and solar.
O’Malley took aim at Obama’s “all-of-the-above” energy policy and labeled his own take on the issue as a “revolution,” stressing the need for more action on alternatives such as wind and solar.
“What we need is a green energy revolution. We need to move America to a 100 percent clean electric grid by 2050 and create 5 million jobs along the way…We did not land a man on the moon with an all-of-the-above strategy,” O’Malley said before diving into some specifics about extending investor tax credits for solar and wind. But before concluding his remarks, he reiterated his clean electric grid plan and said that it would be the very first order he would sign upon taking office.
Webb likes the ‘all-of-the-above’ strategy
Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb was the most significant outlier on energy policy among the Democratic candidates. As moderator Cooper noted, Webb maintains unusual positions on energy for a Democrat: “You’re pro-coal, you’re pro-offshore drilling, you’re pro-Keystone pipeline… Are you out of step with the Democratic party?”
In his response Webb noted that, unlike O’Malley, he was a supporter of the President’s “all-of-the-above” energy policy, having voted for it when he was in the Senate. He highlighted his commitment to both alternative energy sources as well as nuclear power that he hailed as being both safe and clean. But, much like Clinton did in her remarks, he underscored the need for international cooperation—particularly from China and India—to tackle climate change.
Webb noted that he was a supporter of the President’s “all-of-the-above” energy policy.
“We’ve done a good job in this country since 1970,” Webb began. “If you look at China and India, they’re the greatest polluters in the world. Fifteen out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in one of those two countries. We need to solve this in a global way. It’s a global problem and I have been very strong on—on doing that. The… so-called agreements that we have had with China are illusory in terms of the immediate requirements of… the Chinese government itself. So let’s solve this problem in an international way.”
Chafee quiet on energy
By the end of the debate, the only candidate to make no mention of energy policy specifics was Lincoln Chafee. He made one fleeting mention about wanting to address climate change and, in defense of his history of changing political parties, said that his stance on the environment has not changed among other key issues. He failed to provide specific examples that would have elaborated on both comments.