He served in an Obama administration that oversaw a historic surge in American oil and gas production, as shale went mainstream. Tens of thousands of wells were drilled and energy-bearing rocks fractured from North Dakota to Texas. And the industry cheered when the government he was part of lifted a ban on crude exports in 2015.

Yet, Joe Biden — armed with a commanding lead in the polls ahead of November’s US presidential election — now promises a root-and-branch overhaul of the American energy system that will put climate change at its heart and which one worried industry adviser describes as “a Tet offensive” on the fossil fuels industry.

The plan, which will be aired again at the Democratic party convention this week, earmarks $2tn in spending over the next four years to use climate policy to drag the economy out of its pandemic-era recession. But Mr Biden’s plans for the energy sector would reach into everything from Middle East geopolitics to the global race with China over clean tech and is likely to prove unpopular among parts of the US electorate — dependent on oil and gas for jobs — in an election year.

It stems from an urgency about climate change that has animated much of his party — especially the younger supporters he will need to mobilise. And is made possible by a coming together of factors: drastic falls in clean-energy costs, rapid technological progress, and the devastation of the pandemic, which makes even a $2tn plan seem politically viable.

“Biden did gain key climate and clean energy provisions in the 2009 stimulus [during the financial crisis],” says Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate adviser. “But he also recognises that climate has emerged over the past decade as a premier issue of global security and foreign policy, and is now suddenly a crucial element in America’s green recovery from the Covid crisis, as well.”

Mr Biden said in July that he would not “tinker around the edges” with his plan. “We’re going to make historic investments that will seize the opportunity.”

It means energy will be pivotal to November’s election — and the election pivotal to the future of the energy industry, with huge domestic and international implications.

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The outcome appears binary. On one hand is the status quo of Donald Trump — who, as president, has proclaimed an era of American “energy dominance”, torn up rules hindering drilling, weakened environmental oversight, and taken advantage of the US’s reduced dependence on foreign supplies to impose sanctions on oil exporters from Venezuela to Iran. On the other, the green revolution proposed by Mr Biden, who has also committed to rejoining both the Iranian nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord — multilateral agreements that Mr Trump withdrew from, claiming they were bad for the US.

“The plan is very bold,” says Leah Stokes, an expert on climate policy and a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “There is no [US] state right now that has a target this ambitious.”

If elected, Mr Biden is promising net-zero emissions by 2050 and to electrify the US’s transportation sector, installing a vast network of new car charging points, upgrading the grid and deploying utility-scale battery storage across the US.

Members of the US administration watch as Donald Trump announces his decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement because he said it was bad for the US
Members of the US administration watch as Donald Trump announces his decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement because he said it was bad for the US © Chip Somodevilla/Getty
Presidents Barack Obama of the US and Francois Hollande of France in Paris in 2015. American oil and gas production soared under Obama, as shale went mainstream
Presidents Barack Obama of the US and François Hollande of France in Paris in 2015. American oil and gas production soared under Obama, as shale went mainstream © Thibault Camus/AFP/Getty

Critics say it will destroy the country’s world-beating oil and gas industry — a claim that has forced Biden supporters in shale heartlands to insist local economies will be secured. The plan, they say, will resurrect American manufacturing and the country’s leadership — and, by including elements of the Green New Deal supported by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, satisfies the Democratic party’s leftwing without scaring its middle. 

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The language of the climate plan — devised by Stef Feldman, a Biden policy adviser, but with input, say people familiar with it, from a range of experts — tries to ease those tensions, with the creation of “millions of jobs” as frequent a motif as climate.

Congressional support for Mr Biden’s energy vision will also be critical to its progress. Even if the Democrats win control of the Senate, this is not guaranteed. If they don’t, Republicans would mount stiff opposition.

“It’s hard to overstate how far Joe Biden’s Democratic party has shifted on fossil fuels, especially natural gas, in just four years,” says Bob McNally, a former adviser in the George W Bush White House and now head of Rapidan Energy Group. “A Biden victory would unleash a Tet offensive against the US oil and gas sector.”

US oil output soared during the Obama-Biden years and so did US natural gas production. Two charts showing the daily oil and gas production from 2000 to 2020

‘Technically, financially do-able’

The most significant pledge is to “decarbonise” the US electricity sector by 2035. Power generation accounted for about a third of US energy-related emissions last year and offers the best chance for fast and deep cuts. And, claims the Biden camp, “the biggest job creation and economic opportunity engine of the 21st century”.

It is certainly ambitious. The plan pledges the installation of tens of thousands of wind turbines, millions of solar panels and a doubling of offshore wind by 2030. It is similarly aspirational — and vague — on other technologies analysts think will be essential in any shift to clean electricity. Carbon-free hydrogen fuel, advanced nuclear reactors, and grid-scale storage “at one-tenth the cost of lithium-ion batteries” are envisaged. None yet exists at the necessary scale.

Despite its thin details, the plunge in the costs of renewable energy makes the plan plausible, say clean-energy advocates. Installations of everything from rooftop solar to onshore wind turbines are happening faster than expected just a few years ago. Spending on US offshore wind capacity may even get close to matching that of offshore drilling in the next decade, believes Wood Mackenzie, a consultancy. The market’s shift to more clean energy is why the US Energy Information Administration forecasts a doubling of renewables’ share of power generation by 2050.

Clean race - China v US spending renewables

That would still leave natural gas and coal generating almost half of all power in the US. But supporters of a transition say that, with a push of the kind Mr Biden is proposing, fossil fuel reliance can be almost entirely eradicated. A recent study from the University of California, Berkeley concluded that, with “strong policy changes” US power generation could be 90 per cent carbon-free by 2035 without raising consumer bills or needing new fossil fuel plants. It would cost $1.7tn but save $1.2tn in environmental and health costs by 2050, the study calculated.

“Technically, financially, it is all do-able,” says Ms Stokes, referring to Mr Biden’s plan. If the full decarbonisation is not quite reached by 2035, the extra 10 per cent could come later, she says. “In 15 years there will be additional solutions to these problems.”

The main debate is around the role of natural gas. Ernest Moniz, US secretary of energy between 2013 and 2017 when shale output soared, says the fossil fuel will still be needed, and so, therefore, will methods to contain its emissions.

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Rising gas production in recent years helped cut US emissions, as cheap supplies displaced much coal — which emits about twice as much CO2 in combustion — in power generation. “There are [still] going to be some emissions,” says Mr Moniz. “What we need to do is offset them with some negative carbon technologies.”

Near the top of his list is carbon capture and storage, an expensive system of sequestering CO2, either permanently or for use elsewhere. This too requires huge scaling up. The US has only 10 large-scale CCS plants, with capacity to capture just 25m tonnes of CO2 a year — a fraction of the 1.6bn pumped out by the power sector.

The Biden camp has committed to research into CCS and says it would provide federal investments and enhanced tax incentives to “accelerate [its] development and deployment”.

It’s an area that industry appears to be engaging with. Dan Gabaldon, a partner at Roland Berger, a consultancy, says “relatively conservative independent power producers”, such as Vistra and Calpine, had become “much more bullish on CCS” than before. “Folks who were fighting it, or were very sceptical of it, are now beginning to embrace it.” 

Political risk

Carbon capture could be politically useful for Mr Biden, because it would preserve natural gas’s place in a decarbonised power sector. As long as natural gas has a role, so too will the practice that is critical to its production and supports so much employment in shale regions: fracking.

The Trump campaign believes fracking is a potential campaign weakness for Mr Biden, claiming that tens of thousands of jobs are potentially at risk. In a speech in Ohio this month, where a drilling boom at the Utica shale gasfield has enriched the economy over recent years, the president said Mr Biden would not just “hurt the bible [and] hurt God”, but was against “our kind of energy”.

Republican attack advertising in next-door Pennsylvania — another big shale gas producer and also a swing state — claims the former vice-president would ban fracking, scrapping 600,000 jobs.

Fact-checkers disagree. But Mr Biden’s fracking problem is partly homemade. Pressed for his position in a CNN debate with Bernie Sanders this year, the former vice-president seemed clear: “No more. No new fracking.”

An electric vehicle charging station in LA. Joe Biden is promising to electrify the US transportation sector by installing new charging points, upgrading the grid and deploying more battery storage capacity
An electric vehicle charging station in LA. Joe Biden is promising to electrify US transportation by installing charging points, upgrading the grid and deploying more battery storage capacity © Citizen of the Planet/UIG/Getty
A petroleum tanker sails towards Port Aransas, Texas. Critics say Mr Biden's energy reforms would destroy the country's oil and gas industry 
A petroleum tanker sails towards Port Aransas, Texas. Critics say Mr Biden’s energy reforms would destroy the country’s oil and gas industry  © Tom Pennington/Getty

It was a head in the hands moment for a campaign that has worked hard to shore up Mr Biden’s support in shale areas. The candidate has tried to be clearer since, saying recently that fracking was “not on the chopping block”, even though he would ban any new drilling on federal lands.

The ambiguity may be deliberate, as Mr Biden seeks to keep anti-fossil fuel campaigners on the left of his party onside while seeking to blunt their movement’s capacity to frighten swing voters. The Biden campaign did not respond to requests for comment on his energy policy.

Polls show Mr Biden is favourite to win the 20 electoral college votes up for grabs in Pennsylvania, which Hillary Clinton narrowly lost in 2016. But supporters in the state’s shale-rich areas, such as congressman Conor Lamb, are fighting to persuade voters that Mr Biden remains the moderate who was part of the administration that oversaw the historic surge in oil and gas output.

“Some would try to portray the vice-president in the extremist camp of people like AOC,” says Rich Fitzgerald, a Democrat, and the top elected local official in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, whose constituents include many people employed in the shale gas business. “He’s not.”

A Connexus Energy solar-plus-battery storage project site in Athens, Minnesota © Ari Lindquist/Bloomberg

Oil’s champion in the White House

That message may be getting through in Pennsylvania. But, elsewhere in the US oil and gas sector, from operators to the Wall Street bankers that fund the industry, the mood is a mix of fear and resignation.

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Mr Biden need not announce a specific fracking ban to damage their industry, say fossil fuel executives — especially after the devastation brought by this year’s oil price crash. He could simply do so by reviving Obama-era environmental rules, curbing leakage of methane — a greenhouse gas more potent than CO2 — from pipelines and other facilities, cracking down on the burning-off of unused natural gas at wellheads, or by requiring public companies to disclose climate risks and emissions from their operations.

“If you’re an oil and gas guy and Biden wins you’ve got an awful lot to be worried about,” says Dan Eberhart, head of Canary, an oilfield services company, and Trump supporter. “It seems like his plan is to abandon Pennsylvania, Texas and oil and gas workers in favour of trying to make the environmentalists happy. There will be a semi-permanent cloud over the industry and that will crowd out investment.”

A fracked well at a Capitan Energy site in Texas. The Trump campaign believes fracking is a potential campaign weakness for rival Joe Biden
A fracked well at a Capitan Energy site in Texas. The Trump campaign believes fracking is a potential campaign weakness for rival Joe Biden © Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty

Industry insiders believe Mr Trump is much more favourable to the oil industry. While the president pleaded with Saudi Arabia and Russia to end their price war and has spoken repeatedly about helping the battered shale sector, bailouts for fossil fuels or restoring crude output to the record level it struck this year would not feature high on Mr Biden’s agenda.

“I don’t expect that it’s going to be a top priority to get back to 13m barrels of oil production a day,” says Mike Sommers, head of the American Petroleum Institute, one of the most powerful lobby groups in Washington.

Still, the API is sanguine about what a Biden presidency would mean for Big Oil. “I’ve met him, I’ve negotiated with him,” says Mr Sommers. “The view from behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office is different from behind a podium looking at a crowd on the campaign trail.”

Democrats Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announce Green New Deal proposals in Washington
Democrats Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announce Green New Deal proposals in Washington © Chip Somodevilla/Getty
Among Mr Biden's commitments are net-zero emissions by 2050 and, says his campaign literature, creating '10m new good-paying jobs'
Among Mr Biden’s commitments are net-zero emissions by 2050 and, says his campaign literature, creating ’10m new good-paying jobs’ © Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty

Iranian oil

Two agreements ditched by Mr Trump — that his Democratic challenger pledges immediately to rejoin — may exemplify the shift that would occur in American and global energy with a Biden election victory.

The first is the Iranian nuclear deal. Mr Biden has said he would re-enter the treaty Mr Trump walked away from in 2018, if Tehran complies with its terms. Assuming that those conditions are met, executive orders reinstating the US in the deal and lifting the Trump administration’s sanctions on Iranian oil exports could be signed within days of Mr Biden’s entry to the White House, according to people with knowledge of the process.

Iranian oil supply would rise sharply — to be met with production increases from its geopolitical rival, Saudi Arabia. This year’s historic Opec cuts deal would unravel, say energy analysts, sparking another market crash of the kind that battered the US shale sector this year.

Mr Biden has also said he would rejoin the Paris climate agreement, committing once more to limits on emissions and representing a fundamental reversal in Washington’s approach. Mr Trump’s years of promoting fossil fuels would yield to a focus on international co-operation and the battle against emissions.

“The US consumes one-sixth of the world’s energy,” says Kevin Book, an analyst at Clearview Energy Partners, a Washington consultancy. “The election in 2020 could have a lot to do with how green the world is in 2030.”

Via Financial Times