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Democrats split from Obama playbook – Instead opt for more aggressive climate plans – Activists lament: ‘Obama was never the climate champion we needed’


Democratic White House hopefuls are rolling out aggressive climate change plans that show a sharp break from former President Barack Obama by seeking to prohibit new fossil fuel production on federal lands.

That represents a U-turn from the Trump administration’s focus on driving up U.S. fossil fuel production and would go further than climate policies implemented by Obama, who often extolled the rising U.S. energy production from fracking during his tenure in the White House.

All 10 candidates participating in CNN’s climate change town hall Wednesday, including former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), have proposed halting new leases to tap into energy deposits on millions of acres both onshore and off the coasts, a sign that the party has adopted the position of green groups that long pushed to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

“Everything has gone to 11,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a group of oil and gas companies. “You pick a topic and it’s like President Obama might as well have been a Republican.”

Federal land is one of few areas where an administration can shift energy development in a major way without relying on action from Congress. Fossil fuels from lands under the federal government’s control accounted for about one-quarter of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions between 2005 and 2014, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It’s also a cash cow: revenues from federal oil and gas output topped $8 billion in 2018, according to the Office of Natural Resources Revenue.

But as the latest reports from scientists in groups like the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ramp up warnings that time is running short to avoid catastrophic warming, a new group of young activists in organizations like the Sunrise Movement have joined older environmental groups to press Democrats to take aggressive steps.

“President Obama was a friendly target for climate campaigning, but he was never the climate champion we needed. We should have seen the promises candidates are making now a decade ago,” said Jenny Marienau, political campaign director with 350Action.

Energy lobbyists say instituting an outright ban through executive order or some other policy mechanism would likely violate several laws — though that hasn’t dissuaded candidates such as Warren, who said she would issue a moratorium on new leases her first day in office.

And a president can’t simply evict energy companies from ongoing operations on federal land without giving them compensation, so the thousands of existing leases would likely remain in place. Companies can also hold onto leases for 10 years at a time.

“Almost every candidate has committed to immediately or rapidly ending leasing on public land and we trust that they’ll find the mechanisms,” Marienau said.

Some candidates have acknowledged that legal obstacle on canceling existing leases, and Warren and Biden have said they would block only new fossil fuel leasing. But Sanders’ climate plan said he would “immediately end all new and existing fossil fuel extraction on federal public lands,” while Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) envisions “phasing out” existing leases.

Energy lobbyists and attorneys acknowledge that a president has many ways to frustrate energy companies within the confines of the laws.