Climate Groups Begin Vying for Power in the Biden Era as Pressure for Unity Fades

As the BlueGreen Alliance gears up for a big staff expansion, debates around carbon capture, natural gas, and nuclear energy resurface.

Joe Biden speaks about climate change and the wildfires on the West Coast a the Delaware Museum of Natural History on September 14, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware.
Joe Biden speaks about climate change and the wildfires on the West Coast on Sept. 14, 2020 in Wilmington, Del. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of six labor unions and six national environmental groups, is gearing up for a significant staff expansion heading into the Biden administration, recently advertising for 11 new positions, including the 15-year-old group’s first field organizers and federal campaign manager. The staffing up, said Jason Walsh, executive director of the alliance, is a reflection of funders recognizing “the moment we’re in, both in terms of the scale of the crisis and the opportunity with the new Congress and a new president” — and also a signal that policy differences in the Democratic climate coalition will emerge in clearer focus over the next few months.

As pressure for unity from the presidential campaign season fades and President Joe Biden begins enacting his climate vision, there will be more competition among climate groups for influencing policy, a preview of which emerged in September over a House energy bill that ultimately garnered 18 Democratic dissenting votes. The Biden campaign sought to align itself closely with unions on the trail, making BlueGreen a valued ally, though some of its other efforts to court environmental justice groups highlight policy differences that the new administration will have to navigate.

The BlueGreen Alliance, which emphasizes equity and the needs of working people in the U.S.’s response to climate change, rejects what it calls the “false choice” between economic security and a viable planet, according to an eight-page policy platform released in 2019.

While BlueGreen’s focus on public investment, good jobs, and justice shares much in common with the federal Green New Deal resolution introduced in February 2019, their “Solidarity for Climate Action” report is in tension with those in the environmental movement who call for a more rapid transition away from oil, coal, and natural gas. BlueGreen says that the ultimate goal should be to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, but not necessarily end the fossil fuel industry itself, with its tens of thousands of high-paying jobs.

“We’re focused on what we can build together, not on shutting down projects or facilities,” said Walsh. “We’re focused on what unites labor and environment … [and] we’ll need that unity, we have literally no votes to spare.”

And the BlueGreen Alliance, which endorsed Biden for president — its first endorsement of a candidate for public office — is well-positioned among Democratic leaders to push its platform. “Based on our efforts and the efforts of our allies, there’s something of an emerging consensus among Democratic policymakers of the central importance of getting to net-zero by 2050 in a way that supports and creates lots of high-quality, accessible union jobs in the process,” Walsh said.

The alliance — which includes large national green groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council and labor unions like the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of Teachers, and the United Steelworkers — also calls for measures like restoring forests and wildlands, cracking down on employee misclassification, making it easier to unionize, winning universal high-speed internet, and investing in deindustrialized areas. Walsh declined to say who exactly was financing BlueGreen’s new positions but said it received some significant support recently from “old and some new” philanthropies, including the Hewlett Foundation.

BlueGreen will notably not weigh in on pipeline project debates, and it has no position on fracking. Walsh told The Intercept that as outlined in the “Solidarity for Climate Action” report, the coalition endorses “low-and-no carbon” electricity production, which could potentially include nuclear energy and natural gas.

“If Biden and Harris are truly committed to environmental justice, that means they have to be proactively figuring out how to close down fossil fuel infrastructure,” countered Erich Pica, the president of Friends of the Earth, a progressive climate group. Pica critiqued the BlueGreen Alliance’s 2019 report for not being aggressive enough in calling out fossil fuels. The Green New Deal resolution also did not make mention of fossil fuels, which Pica also objected to.

“With Democrats in control, it’s time for an honest discussion about whether fossil fuels can be a part of the solution and about whether we should be propping up a dying industry that’s screwing over its workers,” said Collin Rees, a senior campaigner at Oil Change International, which also opposes the expansion of the fossil fuel industry.

Anthony Rogers-Wright, of the Climate Justice Alliance, a national coalition of environmental justice groups, said that while members of the group “probably agree on 85-90 percent” of things with the BlueGreen Alliance, there are some fundamental differences. Rogers-Wright said that he was not expecting the big scale-up of BlueGreen’s staff, but he’s not surprised either. “I have much respect for them, and we work with them, but there also still does exist a massive wealth gap of historically white-led environmental organizations compared to grassroot organizations, and that’s being manifested here as well.”

A truck carts coal ash as emissions rise from a smoke stack at the Conesville Power Plant in Conesville, Ohio, U.S., on April 18, 2020.

A truck carts coal ash as emissions rise from a smokestack at the Conesville Power Plant in Conesville, Ohio, on April 18, 2020.

Photo: Dane Rhys/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Groups across the Democratic spectrum agree that the Biden campaign and his transition team have done a notably good job of listening to and engaging with different perspectives. The expectation is that some deeper fissures will come to light when it comes time to actually roll out climate policy, especially around the future of carbon capture technology, nuclear energy, and natural gas.

Many left-wing climate groups have taken a hard-line stance against carbon capture, which traps emissions before they’re released or sucks them from the atmosphere; they see it as a way to prolong dependence on fossil fuels and make it more difficult to reduce carbon emissions overall. While the Green New Deal resolution was ambiguous on carbon capture, during the 2020 presidential primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders came out against it, echoing left-wing climate groups that call it a “false solution.”

Carbon capture, backed by BlueGreen, is endorsed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which said in 2018 that it was likely necessary to hit global climate targets. The International Energy Agency has also recently warned that it would be “virtually impossible” to reach net-zero without carbon capture tech. Advocates note that renewable energy alternatives like wind and solar are not viable solutions for reducing carbon emissions in the industrial sector, where nearly a quarter of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from.

In September, the House passed a nearly 900-page clean energy package with bipartisan support, including from the majority of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and nearly all the Green New Deal resolution co-sponsors. But, after a coalition of progressive climate groups, including the Sunrise Movement, Friends of the Earth, and the Climate Justice Alliance, protested the bill’s support for carbon capture, 18 Democrats, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley, voted against it. Progressives saw a victory in their ability to peel off dissenters and say they are prepared to do so again under a Biden administration.

“We didn’t stop [the bill], but we had 18 votes, and that could stop any legislation with Nancy Pelosi’s smaller majority,” Rees told The Intercept. “I think when we were able to make that case to lawmakers about whether they see a continuing role for the fossil fuel industry, to lay that choice out, a lot of people made the right choice. And we’ll continue to grow that anti-fossil fuel margin.”

The BlueGreen Alliance did not take a position on September’s energy bill. “All of our decision-making is consensus-based, and the House energy bill moved too quickly for us to do the due diligence with all our partners,” Walsh explained.

While many left-wing climate groups see their upper hand on environmental justice issues, those same groups struggle to connect with the labor movement, despite their rhetoric around centering workers and jobs.

Many unions are skeptical that phrases like “a just transition” will amount to anything more than a hollow slogan. Moreover, unions supportive of carbon capture technology include not just those working in the energy industry, but also those in health care, education, and communications. And there’s real overlap between Green New Deal partners and BlueGreen; both the SEIU and the AFT, BlueGreen coalition members, passed resolutions in support of the Green New Deal, and the League of Conservation Voters, also a BlueGreen member, was another early endorser of the resolution.

BlueGreen Alliance leaders think the expectation that they call for ending the fossil fuel industry even prior to having any sort of real alternative in place is unrealistic and reflects something of an insincere commitment from left-wing groups to working with organized labor.


The Environmental Left Is Softening on Carbon Capture Technology. Maybe That’s OK.

Pica acknowledged that BlueGreen is helpful and “one of the few places having formal conservations with labor” in the environmental movement. He said climate groups “have to have some real conversations with the labor movement and workers that will be most adversely affected [by the energy transition], and we have to treat those workers as holistically, to ensure they’re guided through a transition that is grounded in keeping those communities whole.”

Rees agreed that “unions need to be part of the conversation” and acknowledged past opposition to unionization by renewable energy companies and the low wages of many jobs heralded as preferable alternatives to fossil fuel employment. “[Unions] are 100 percent correct when they say they’re not comparable jobs, and I think we absolutely need to get real about what those transition programs are,” he said. “I completely agree with oil and gas people, and climate groups are not happy either about what’s been offered on the transition side.”

Demonstrators from several environmental groups including Extinction Rebellion and Sunrise Movement demand broad action at a youth-led climate strike near City Hall on December 6, 2019 in New York City.

Demonstrators from several environmental groups, including Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement, demand broad action at a youth-led climate strike near City Hall on Dec. 6, 2019, in New York.

Photo: Scott Heins/Getty Images

For now, the Biden administration is walking a tightrope, looking to please all sides for as long as possible.

Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan released in July called for accelerating the development and deployment of carbon capture technology, and on his presidential transition website, he mentions a commitment to innovating “negative emissions technologies” — an umbrella term for carbon capture. His Department of Energy transition team includes Brad Markell, the executive director for the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council and a strong advocate for carbon capture technology, and Noah Deich, the executive director for Carbon180, a group focused on carbon removal tech.

Biden’s team has also appointed individuals who left-wing critics of carbon capture concede are exciting and encouraging, including Rep. Deb Haaland to lead the Department of the Interior, Michael Regan to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, and Brenda Mallory to chair the Council on Environmental Quality. Last week, the Biden team announced six more climate appointments, including Maggie Thomas, who advised both Elizabeth Warren and Jay Inslee’s presidential campaigns, and Cecilia Martinez, who will direct environmental justice initiatives and comes from the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy.

For now, the Biden administration is walking a tightrope, looking to please all sides for as long as possible.

“It’s not perfect, but we were quite happy in the end with how the final team shaped up,” said Rees, and noted that left-wing groups helped defeat the nomination of former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, in part by highlighting his ties to the fossil fuel industry. Moniz founded a think tank at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after leaving the Obama administration and works there with his former Department of Energy adviser, David Foster, who was also the founding executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance.

Reese, Pica, and Rogers-Wright all told The Intercept that the Biden campaign and transition team have been in strong communication with them. Pica went so far as to say Biden’s team is “one of the most open and transparent campaigns that I’ve worked with over the last 20 years.” He said he feels “cautiously optimistic” and that its members have “done a pretty good job” on personnel picks.

For now, some left-wing climate groups concede that even if the Biden team has close relations with the BlueGreen Alliance and the alliance plans to flex its power more in the coming months, the Biden team has also shown its willingness to be more aggressive against fossil fuel companies in ways that BlueGreen would not.

During the primary, Biden said the government should “go after” the fossil fuel industry to hold it accountable for climate change, “just like we did the drug companies, just like we did the tobacco companies.” He’s also avoided the “all-of-the-above” energy rhetoric of the Obama administration, called for a ban on new fossil fuel permitting on public lands, and on Wednesday issued an executive order rescinding the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.

“That’s all a testament to how far the movement has come,” said Rees. “Because for all the things that Joe Biden is, he’s not a radical politician.”

Join The Conversation