President Biden's campaign trail comments on coal plants, oil drilling draw criticism

While coal power backers jump on campaign trail comments, environmental coalition says the President is dragging his feet on ending extraction leases

John R. Moses
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Despite the White House press office’s attempts to walk back remarks by President Joe Biden last week on his stated desire to close coal-fired plants, a national and a local backer of keeping those plants and the mines that feed them operating issued scathing rebuttals.

Energy industry backers on Monday responded to a fresh set of comments by the president over the weekend about oil drilling that appeared to have Biden in opposition to new offshore drilling.

An environmental group, meanwhile, also took aim at the Biden administration, stating it is too close to the fossil fuel industry.

“President Biden’s marked reversal from what he told voters on the campaign trail regarding his commitment to desperately overdue climate action to his administration’s policies promoting the fossil fuel industry is astounding,” said Morgan O’Grady with the Western Environmental Law Center. “Not only is leasing hundreds of thousands of acres of public land keeping us on a trajectory toward climate catastrophe, it sells out the frontline communities that were promised climate and environmental justice by President Biden. It is existentially sad.”

More:Biden, Trump campaign before midterm elections

President Joe Biden points as he tells members of the crowd where to look to get a photo taken after a campaign event for New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022, at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, N.Y.

Coal plant comments anger many

“I was in Massachusetts about a month ago on the site of the largest old coal plant in America. Guess what? It cost them too much money,” Biden said Friday at a California campaign rally. “No one is building new coal plants because they can’t rely on it, even if they have all the coal guaranteed for the rest of their existence of the plant. So it’s going to become a wind generation,” Biden added. “We’re going to be shutting these plants down all across America and having wind and solar.”

The issue of closing coal-fired plants and the mines that feed them strikes home in San Juan County where the City of Farmington and its partner Enchant Energy are still working to gain rights to restart the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station and save jobs that will otherwise evaporate. The mine that feeds that plant has been closed by its owner.

The generating station itself closed at the end of September and is being decommissioned as the city seeks a path through arbitration to take it over.

Nate Duckett

“I find it incredible that the man elected to lead our nation and provide security and stability to each and every citizen is so out of touch with the realities of our energy needs now and in the future,” Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett said via email Nov. 6. “The unnecessary and ill-advised closing of coal fired power plants will only cause more pain and suffering at the hands of policy makers who create utopian visions for what the future looks like with no thought to the dystopian realities of removing an abundant, affordable, reliable, and economic supportive power source and job creator from our world.”

More:Midterm rallies leave Democrats feeling nostalgic for Obama, amid tepid support for Biden

Duckett said the president’s energy policies have increased the cost of electricity for homes and businesses, “reduced electricity reliability while increasing demand, and has displaced thousands of hard working coal miners, power plant workers, and their families damaging their quality of life and the communities they live in. Instead of promoting energy reliability, affordability, innovation, and sustainability Biden is selling Americans scarcity and higher costs during a time when the average person is trying to figure how they are going to be able to afford food, gas, rent, insurance, etc when prices for all of those things have gone up way more than their paychecks.”

Duckett is not alone in his criticism.

“With just days before Americans head to the ballot box, President Biden has vowed to shut down coal plants ‘all across America,’” according to a statement from the nonprofit energy industry advocacy group Power the Future. “Biden’s latest threat against American energy strikes the same tone as his promise to get rid of the oil industry prior to the 2020 election.”

“For all his failures, Joe Biden has fulfilled his promise to attack the American oil industry and voters should take him seriously with his latest threat against coal,” said Power The Future founder and Executive Director Daniel Turner. “For too long, the proud men and women of the coal industry have taken it on the chin from coastal elitists who would never dream of setting foot anywhere near America’s proud rural communities. Enough is enough: it’s time to end the Biden Administration’s war on energy by sending a loud and unmistakable message that their policies don’t work and his priorities are all wrong for our country."

The president also drew a sharp rebuke from a fellow Democrat, West Virginia U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, when Biden spoke about his preference for the future of coal power during a speech Friday in California as the president touted his $280 billion plan to boost the semiconductor industry and scientific research.

Damage control in D.C.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre issued a statement the next day describing the president’s admiration for hard-working coal communities, and citing the jobs and training programs his administration is bringing to those regions affected by coal facility closures.

On Monday afternoon during a White House press briefing, Jean-Pierre further touted the work the administration is doing to bring aid and job training to coal country while accusing Republicans of wanting to end those assistance programs.

“In fact, through the Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities, President Biden has already delivered more than $23 billion to energy communities across the country,” the statement said.

“The President’s remarks yesterday have been twisted to suggest a meaning that was not intended; he regrets it if anyone hearing these remarks took offense,” Jean-Pierre said in her Nov. 5 initial statement. “The President was commenting on a fact of economics and technology: as it has been from its earliest days as an energy superpower, America is once again in the midst of an energy transition. 

“Our goal as a nation is to combat climate change and increase our energy security by producing clean and efficient American energy,” Jean-Pierre continued. “Under President Biden, oil and natural gas production has increased, and we are on track to hit the highest production in our country’s history next year. He is determined to make sure that this transition helps all Americans in all parts of the country, with more jobs and better opportunities; it’s a commitment he has advanced since Day One.  No one will be left behind.”

Manchin was swift in his response

The powerful coal-state lawmaker said Biden's words “ignore the severe economic pain” for people from higher energy prices and are why Americans “are losing trust” in Biden. Manchin's stinging rebuke of his party's leader comes at precarious time for Democrats on the final weekend of campaigning before Tuesday's elections that could put Republicans back in power in Congress, The Associated Press reported.

Manchin is chairman of the powerful Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and has sat in a make-or-break position on the president’s economic agenda as a tie-breaker.

But Manchin said in a statement that he’d never heard that sort of dismissal of coal jobs from the president and said Biden's remarks were “not only outrageous and divorced from reality, they ignore the severe economic pain the American people are feeling because of rising energy costs.”

Such remarks, Manchin said, "are the reason the American people are losing trust in President Biden. … It seems his positions change daily depending on the audience and politics of the day.”

To drill, or not to drill

The latest comments regarding oil drilling came at a time when the Biden administration has accused the oil industry of wartime profiteering on gas prices. An exchange with a campaign rally audience member on Sunday sparked the latest controversy.

"No more drilling," Biden said during a campaign rally while having an exchange with a member of the audience, according to Forbes and Fox Business reports on the rally.

After some further communication from the audience member, identified as a climate change protester, Biden reportedly said, "There is no more drilling. I haven’t formed any new drilling."

A White House official on background told The Daily Times Monday morning that remarks the President made at that campaign rally in Yonkers, New York, pertained to oil drilling in America’s Arctic region.

“The President was asked about new drilling in the Arctic,” the White House source said. “His position has been clear on that from the start. When the Trump administration opened the Arctic refuge for drilling, not a single major oil company bid on the sale. The facts are the U.S. produced more oil in President Biden’s first year than under Trump’s first year.  And oil companies continue to sit on 9,000 unused but approved drilling permits.

“There is no shortage of opportunity for oil companies to produce more oil in the United States. But instead of ramping up production and lowering gas prices, they’re using their record profits to pad shareholder pockets,” the official said.

Those comments were reiterated by White House Press Secretary Jean-Pierre at the end of the Monday afternoon briefing when a reporter asked whether his comments about oil companies needing to drill more were in conflict with Sunday’s comments. She said they were not in conflict.

The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association did not comment on the President’s most recent statements about oil drilling but shared a release NMOGA issued when the president visited New Mexico last week.

“Oil prices are currently high due to increased demand, a global supply crunch, dependence on foreign producers, workforce constraints, increasing geopolitical instability in Eastern Europe, and energy policy uncertainty from Washington and Europe,” the organization stated. “This administration needs an energy policy reset. We need not look further than the situation in Europe to see what happens when nations depend on energy production from foreign sources with unstable governments that have agendas of their own.”

More:Officials saw strong turnout for early, absentee balloting in San Juan County

The organization touted the potential of the region’s Permian Basin as a solution to American oil independence.

“There is more this administration and policy makers can do to ensure access to affordable, reliable energy, starting with prioritizing our U.S. production, workforce, and energy infrastructure, especially right here in New Mexico,” NMOGA’s statement said. “The solution to America’s energy crunch is right here in New Mexico’s prolific Permian Basin; and through technology, innovation, and our ability to exceed standards, New Mexico’s oil and gas producers provide reliable and cleaner energy that improves the lives of all Americans.”

Environmental groups call for end to drilling in 2035

The Western Environmental Law Center said its broadside at the Biden Administration on Nov. 7 was in response to “the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s first proposed lease sales under the new climate law, which conditions renewable energy rights-of-way on new oil and gas leasing. Next spring the Bureau will auction leases covering 250,000 acres in Wyoming and 10,000 acres in New Mexico and Kansas.”

Groups joining in calling for the elimination of fossil fuel leases want the agency to finish an environmental analysis before reauthorizing those lease sales and tie any actions to a goal of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The groups also want oil and gas extraction activities to decline to near zero by 2035.

“We can’t avoid catastrophic warming if we keep expanding fossil fuel extraction, and the Inflation Reduction Act is no excuse for failing to properly evaluate the harms of this leasing,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Moving ahead with these leases is pushing the accelerator on climate change. The Biden administration can stop this ecocide by phasing out oil and gas extraction. We’re running out of time.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.