Recent difficulties aside, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the odds on favorite to win the presidency this year—and climate advocates are uneasy about what to expect.
She faced immense pressure from a remarkably successful campaign from Senator Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary, which pushed her to the left on an array of issues. She staked out seemingly aggressive positions on climate change, but often left wiggle room in her language, making her pledges far from assured.
With Clinton’s track record of supporting corporate interests, activists are right to be concerned. Moreover, the candidate’s delegates stonewalled several progressive planks in the Democratic Party platform over the summer, telegraphing Clinton’s thinking for her first days in office. In response to their opposition to amendments calling for a ban on fracking, an end to drilling on public lands, and a carbon tax (a compromise on carbon pricing was later added), along with their unwillingness to denounce the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Sanders was flummoxed. “It is hard for me to understand why Secretary Clinton’s delegates won’t stand behind Secretary Clinton’s positions in the party’s platform,” he said in a statement.
Perhaps it is because Clinton does not intend to implement the progressive climate agenda she has promised. There is little reason to question her sincerity on a range of non-controversial moves, such as protecting the EPA’s Clean Power Plan or expanding renewable energy production—but there are several other areas where activists will need to apply significant pressure.
Fracking. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton supported the spread of fracking technology around the world as part of the agency’s Global Shale Gas Initiative. Despite local opposition, the State Department focused in particular on Eastern Europe, with the aim of helping multinationals such as Chevron extract shale gas in the name of energy security. Her support for fracking is well-documented, but during a presidential debate earlier this year, Clinton was put on the spot by Sanders’ support for an outright national ban on fracking. “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 in response, hoping to minimize the difference between the two candidates’ positions.
There are several ways Clinton could regulate fracking as President. At the EPA, she could expand the Obama administration’s crackdown on methane emissions that result from the extraction and shipment of natural gas. She could also push forward on regulating fracking on public lands, although that avenue has been temporarily blocked by a court ruling. These actions would be the bare minimum, however. Clinton might not support a national ban now, but the situation is fluid, and public pressure could put her on a similar trajectory as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Trans-Pacific Partnership. One of the more unconvincing leftward moves Clinton has made during the campaign is her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a sweeping free trade agreement between the U.S. and 11 other Pacific countries. The TPP would empower multinational corporations, granting them the ability to sue governments directly at secretive international tribunals. The problem is not theoretical—it is already taking place under similar agreements. Using this so-called investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) process under NAFTA, for example, an oil and gas company has sued over Quebec’s fracking moratorium. More recently, TransCanada is seeking $15 billion in damages from the U.S. government for rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline, using the same NAFTA provision. The TPP would open the ISDS door to an additional 9,000 companies with U.S. investments alone, threatening climate action around the world.
Before the Democratic primary, Clinton was a leading proponent of the TPP, but came out against it in 2015. Shortly after, CNN catalogued at least 45 instances in which she had spoken favorably about the agreement. In July, close Clinton friend and current Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe even let slip that Sec. Clinton would reverse course once she arrived in the Oval Office.
She may not have to make a decision, as President Obama has signaled that he will push hard to get the TPP through Congress during the lame-duck session, before Clinton takes office; Obama would sign the treaty, relieving the new President-elect from the burden of disappointing many of her voters. However, if passage can be held off until January, Clinton could find herself boxed in by her campaign rhetoric.
Drilling on public lands. Clinton has never claimed to support the “keep it in the ground” movement. But on the relatively modest goal of blocking extraction on public lands, she has staked out a foggy position.
In 2015, Clinton said that she would be in favor of phasing out drilling on public lands, but only as renewables began to replace coal, gas and oil—a politically safe yet uninspiring stance. As the primary race became more contentious in February, she endorsed a ban on the practice, but walked that back a few weeks later, promising to look into the issue. Her position remains confusing, and perhaps not fully fleshed out. She supports reforming “onshore coal, oil, and gas leases to ensure taxpayers are getting a fair deal,” but is not in favor of a moratorium. Here again, sustained pressure from the public could force her hand.
Offshore drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. As with the TPP, Sec. Clinton was for Arctic drilling before she was against it. In 2015, she described herself as “very skeptical” of drilling in the Atlantic Ocean—but her running mate, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, has been an ally of oil and gas companies pushing to open it up.
Earlier this year, after the Obama administration scrapped its previous support to offer drilling leases for the five-year period of 2017-2022, the Clinton campaign was forced to issue a more declarative policy proposal against extraction in the Atlantic. At least for now, the Clinton-Kaine administration opposes drilling in both the Arctic and the Atlantic, but the climate movement will need to remain vigilant.
Early signs don’t look good
Clinton’s platform is full of ambitious and laudable plans to address climate change. She wants to see half a billion solar panels installed by the end of her first term. She also wants to scrap fossil fuel subsidies, invest in infrastructure and efficiency, and elevate environmental justice as a key administration priority. But Clinton has avoided several tough climate choices, and deliberately uses vague language that could open up the possibility of backtracking.
And her decision to appoint former Senator and Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar to lead the transition team does not inspire confidence. During his time in the Obama administration, Salazar supported the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking, drilling on public lands, and the TPP. Executive branch policies are largely an outgrowth of the people put in place to design them, so Salazar’s appointment can be reasonably interpreted to mean that a President Clinton would be much more favorable to fossil fuel interests than she has let on during the campaign.
However, just as she was forced to stake out progressive positions in the primary campaign in order to appeal to voters who broadly want to see climate action, Clinton would remain susceptible to the demands of a diverse and growing climate movement—one that is only just beginning to demonstrate its power.