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The Democratic Environmental Platform: Long on Energy, But Short on Substance

Democratic presidential contender Clinton during her stint as Secretary of State | Photo: US Mission Geneva

Commentary: If there’s one thing the Republican Party’s 2016 platform can be said to accomplish, it’s that it makes the Democrats’ platform look really strong on the environment. Without the worst-case scenario alternative provided by the Republican Party, the Democrats’ 2016 platform would seem lackluster indeed on every subject other than renewable energy and climate change.

As has been the case with Democratic platforms in the recent past, the bulk of the party’s 2016 platform concerns climate change, which has essentially pushed other environmental issues off the public stage over the last decade. Aside from vague promises to protect the landscape and a significant mention of environmental justice, The Democrats’ 2016 platform is actually shorter on environmental specifics than is its deeply flawed Republican counterpart — except in the realm of climate change.

Let’s start where the Democrats' platform is strongest: the section on climate change and clean energy. The Democratic Party commits, in the platform, to comparatively ambitious clean energy goals. There’s the pledge to ensure half the nation’s electrical power supply is renewably sourced ten years from now, for instance. (California, which has the strongest renewable energy goals in the nation, is holding its utilities to a 50 percent renewables benchmark by 2030, a few years after the Democrats’ target date.)

The Democratic Party commits to installing half a billion solar panels in the US in the next four years, eliminating subsidies for fossil fuels, cutting methane leaks from the oil and gas industry to 40 percent under 2005 levels by 2025, and working toward making sure the federal government is 100 percent renewable-powered by some unspecified date.

Less specific goals include cutting energy waste in homes, offices, and industry; improving vehicle mileage for cars, trucks, and other transportation; modernizing the electrical grid (a goal it shares with the Republicans); and preserving government incentives for renewable energy development.

500 million more of these by 2020 | Photo: Thomas Kohler, some rights reserved

One energy promise that will likely be greeted with applause from environmental activists is a commitment in the platform to rewrite part of the 2005 Energy Bill that granted oil and gas firms exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act for fracking projects. The so-called “Halliburton Loophole” allows oil and gas companies to inject fracking fluids into or near known drinking water aquifers without regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency.

For those concerned with protecting public lands from energy development, the platform gives with one hand and takes away with the other:

We oppose drilling in the Arctic and off the Atlantic coast, and believe we need to reform fossil fuel leasing on public lands. We will phase down extraction of fossil fuels from our public lands, starting with the most polluting sources, while making our public lands and waters engines of the clean energy economy and creating jobs across the country. Democrats will work to expand the amount of renewable energy production on federal lands and waters, from wind in Wyoming to solar in Nevada.

That last bit echoes more specific campaign promises from the Clinton camp to increase renewable energy production on “public lands and waters” by a factor of ten over current levels of development, certainly a daunting prospect for those attempting to protect the desert southwest from wholesale conversion to power plants.

Drinking water safety figures large in the second-most-extensive section of the Democrats’ platform. That section of the platform springboards off the recent catastrophe in Flint, Michigan to point out the disproportionate degree to which communities of color and the less affluent are affected by industrial pollution. The authors weave climate change into this section as well, noting that  extreme weather and other climate disruption hits low-income, minority, and Native communities harder and sooner than it does folks in gated communities. The Democrats lump coal-producing communities into this section, pledging to take steps to reduce the impact on coal towns of cleaning up our energy economy.

Aside from a commitment to eradicate lead poisoning from low-income communities, which would be both admirable and no small feat, and pledging to plug minority communities into the new renewable economy, the platform is silent on other hot-topic environmental justice issues, which range from borderland pollution to the communities affected by industrial livestock feedlots, to the ongoing displacement of low-income people into less-desirable industrial neighborhoods by gentrification. That may be understandable: the platform isn’t really supposed to be a laundry list. But it’s hard not to wonder whether lead would have been mentioned either, had it not been for months of intense public focus on the water privatization debacle in Flint.

The platform is short on details about protecting public lands | Photo: John Fowler, some rights reserved

The last remaining section of the Democratic Party platform concerns public lands and waters. It contains a few very good ideas:  a trust fund to expand parks at all levels of government, bringing a more diverse workforce to the nation’s parks and public lands and working to diversify the visiting public, and the usual paean to the importance of partnerships with farmers to protect land and water. But like the environmental justice section, it’s frustratingly short on specific positions on actual current issues. In response to the burgeoning right-wing public lands privatization movement ranging from the Bundy Ranch to the House of Representatives, the Democratic Platform says only this:

As a nation, we need policies and investments that will keep America’s public lands public…

Nor does this section mention the increasing de facto privatization of public lands under Democratic administrations that results from renewable energy development on public lands, but that’s admittedly understandable.

The Endangered Species Act comes in for a similar ringing but non-detailed mention:

Democrats oppose efforts to undermine the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act to protect threatened and endangered species.

With, again, no mention of recent initiatives by the current Democratic administration to erode the ESA from within, such as delisting the gray wolf, top-down directives ordering USFWS scientists to stop working to list the wolverine, or work to erode similar laws like the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. In case you thought the Republicans were the only party bending the truth about environmental policy, here's an example of the Democrats doing the very same thing. 

One specific public lands issue did make it into the platform: an endorsement of EPA efforts to control sediment and acid mine drainage pollution from Alaska’s Pebble Mine, which if unregulated would be a significant threat to wild salmon.

Climate activists have expressed frustration with the lack of hard detail even in the relatively well-fleshed-out climate change section. Where the Republicans, for instance, come right out and oppose a carbon tax, the Democratic framers make vague promises to reduce greenhouse gases without an overarching strategy to do so, other than nibbling away at emissions through a raft of more or less related policies. Those policies are well and good: we need more efficient vehicles, better sources of power, and less methane leaking into the atmosphere. But there are ways, like a tax on carbon, to address those emissions systemically that would make the other projects even easier.

As it happens, one of the platform’s framers offered us a glimpse into the reason behind the lack of detail. Climate activist Bill McKibben, appointed to the platform committee by fellow Vermonter Bernie Sanders, wrote in June that each of the specific steps for actual emissions reductions he suggested the Democrats adopt was voted down by Clinton partisans on the committee. They included that aforementioned carbon tax, a ban on fracking, an end to oil and gas development on public land, and even a relatively mild measure requiring that federal agencies weigh the climate impacts of their programs and decisions. All of them were voted down 7-6, reflecting a Clinton-Sanders split in the committee.

The platform did eventually include a watered-down version of one of those suggestions: the above-quoted “phasing down” of extraction of fossil fuels on public lands, starting with the worst polluters.

But it’s indicative of a systemic problem. Despite significant differences on paper between the Republican and Democratic environmental platforms, and a differing regard for scientific fact — republicans seem to mistrust science on principle, while Democrats only resist that science that’s really inconvenient — the business of America is still making profit off the environment. And both major parties resist any suggestion that might change that.

Do the third parties, Green and Libertarian, offer any alternative in their platforms? We’ll cover that in the next installment of this series.

Read our commentary on the Republican Party's 2016 environmental platform

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