Democrats' Climate Forum Exposes Rifts On Fracking, Nuclear Power And The Filibuster

Turns out there would be plenty for the Democrats to debate, should they ever get the chance.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the climate crisis "town hall" on Wednesday, moderated by CNN's Anderson Cooper.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the climate crisis "town hall" on Wednesday, moderated by CNN's Anderson Cooper.
Edward M. PioRoda/CNN

At CNN’s seven-hour marathon climate crisis town hall Wednesday, the top 10 candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination united on calls to recommit to the Paris climate accord, end subsidies to oil, gas and coal companies, and halt fossil fuel leasing on public lands.

But fault lines opened on issues like the future of fossil fuels, fracking, nuclear energy and the Senate filibuster, suggesting a debate on these differences should be at the forefront of the nomination process, not relegated to a sidebar.

On fracking, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) called for total bans on the natural gas extraction process, while former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) made vague promises to review the safety of existing wells.

On nuclear power, businessman Andrew Yang and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) envisioned a new age of reactors, while others lamented radioactive waste. Dividing lines over whether to end the filibuster, the Senate procedure some fear would obstruct the passage of climate legislation, also became clearer as Harris joined Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in denouncing the practice and Sanders held up an obscure budgetary tool to get around the issue.

The back-to-back forums, which went until midnight, highlighted the complexity of overhauling the entire global economy and added heft to activists’ calls for a full-on debate on the climate crisis. Though audience questions served as useful proxies for the candidates’ differences, it’s difficult to imagine most voters watching the full slate of town halls and analyzing the distinctions.

The forum came less than two weeks after the Democratic National Committee rejected party activists’ efforts to get an official, sanctioned climate debate. Some suspect that party leaders’ reluctance to have a debate is because they fear candidates’ differences on issues like fracking might expose fissures that undermine the goal of defeating President Donald Trump, particularly in gas-rich battleground states like Pennsylvania.

At no point did that seem clearer than when Biden, the current front-runner in polls, struggled to defend his plans to attend a fundraiser that the co-founder of a major natural gas firm is co-hosting. Given how rivals pounced on Biden in the last debate, such a moment could have proven humiliating on a stage with other contenders ― and forced candidates to cop to their own ethically dubious donors.

Fracked Up

Julián Castro, the former secretary of housing and urban development, dodged a question about banning fracking but acknowledged that his view of the drilling practice had changed.

“Almost a decade ago, we had been saying that natural gas was a bridge fuel,” he said. “We’re coming to the end of the bridge.”

Sanders, who first called for a ban on fracking during the 2016 presidential campaign, repeated his call earlier in the day but faced no questions on the issue during his CNN segment. Harris said she’d ban fracking on public lands and push for legislation to prohibit the drilling nationwide.

“There’s no question I’m in favor of banning fracking,” she said.

The more avowedly centrist candidates trod a middle ground. Both Biden and Klobuchar said they oppose fracking bans but promised to launch exhaustive reviews of the thousands of existing fracking sites to determine which ones were safe. Neither offered details on how such sweeping assessments would be conducted, by when or by whom, or on what legal grounds their administrations would revoke existing permits.

Nuke Kids On The Block

No one seemed more enthusiastic about the future of nuclear power than Yang. He called for converting existing plants from uranium to thorium-based reactors, which produce less radioactive waste, according to the World Nuclear Association.

To me, nuclear energy needs to be on the table in a transition to a more renewable economy, because our society consumes a great deal of energy,” Yang said. “And nuclear, right now, it gets a bad rap, in part because the technologies we’re using are antiquated.”

Booker touted his “massive moonshot” proposal on climate that includes “research” and “investments” in nuclear energy. He called it the “future we need to not be fearful of” but rather that “we need to embrace.”

“We’ve got to get people excited about what’s there,” he said. “We as a society, as Americans, must make the investments so we lead humanity to the innovations, the breakthroughs and the jobs of the future.”

But, with nuclear waste a top concern in the early-voting state of Nevada, others approached the energy source with skepticism. Sanders said it “doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me to add more dangerous waste to this country and to the world when we don’t know how to get rid of what we have right now.”

“We got a heck of a lot of nuclear waste,” Sanders said, “which, as you know, is going to stay around this planet for many, many, many thousands of years. And you know what? We don’t know how to get rid of it right now.”

Harris vowed never to force states to take nuclear waste.

“The biggest issue that I believe we face in terms of nuclear energy is the waste and what are we going to do with that,” she said.

The Filibluster

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who until last month was running as the climate candidate in the race, helped propel calls to scrap the filibuster to the forefront of the national debate. The filibuster is the biggest hurdle to passing a comprehensive climate law, as it forces a 60-vote supermajority to end Senate debate and allows Republicans to obstruct any major legislative progress.

Early in the night, Harris made news by saying she’d support ending the filibuster if Republicans stood in the way of a Green New Deal, the sweeping industrial plan many Democrats are championing to zero out emissions by midcentury.

“As president of the United States, I am prepared to get rid of the filibuster to pass a Green New Deal,” she said.

In making the announcement, she joined Warren, so far the only other major candidate to support ending the filibuster.

But doing so would require Democrats to win a firm majority in the Senate, a prospect that is far from guaranteed. Sanders instead vowed to pass climate legislation through another congressional procedure, the Budget Reconciliation Act. The procedure, as Vox’s David Roberts described it in a helpful explainer, allows for “a special kind of bill meant to reconcile the federal budget that only requires a majority vote in the Senate to pass.”

Sanders noted that former President George W. Bush pushed his tax cuts on the wealthy through that process.

“Just as Bush got through major tax breaks for the rich through the Budget Reconciliation Act, we can do that as well,” he said. “So if your question is, and we’re going to need 60 votes to save the planet, the answer is, no, we will not. There are ways ― there are ways to get that through the Budget Reconciliation Act, which will require 51 votes, and that’s the method we will use.”

There were other firm divisions. Despite showing a united front in past debates on health care, Warren made a clear distinction between herself and Sanders on the issue of public ownership of utilities. Sanders’ sweeping $16.3 trillion Green New Deal calls for a massive expansion of federally owned electricity generation, though advisers stressed that it’s a public option, not a complete takeover of the industry.

“If somebody wants to make a profit from building better solar panels and generating better battery storage, I’m not opposed to that,” Warren said. “What I’m opposed to is when they do it in a way that hurts everybody else.”

Chris D’Angelo contributed to this report.

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