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By Rachel Leven
June 8 — The Democratic presidential primary has made former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the party’s newly minted presumptive nominee, more outwardly progressive on climate and environment issues, political observers representing a range of interests said.
Whether due to pressure from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), environmentalists or just more speaking opportunities, the primary has forced Clinton to be specific about regulating hydraulic fracturing and moving for an oil and gas lease moratorium. Clinton is unlikely to shift from those views during the general election campaign, just as Donald Trump, the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, will probably stay true to his climate denial and energy independence stances, teeing up a stark contrast for the election, political observers said.
“It’s hard to think of a time in any recent period on this issue where there was such a stark choice in the presidential election,” David Goldston, government affairs director for the NRDC Action Fund, told Bloomberg BNA.
These comments come the day after Clinton secured the number of committed delegates necessary to become the Democratic party’s nominee, winning June 8 primaries in three states, including California. While Sanders hasn’t formally dropped out of the race, he faces an uphill battle to beat Clinton.
While Clinton has supported President Barack Obama’s environmental initiatives such as the Clean Power Plan and the Clean Water Rule, she has shifted even further left or verbalized new progressive stances over the course of the primary.
For example, in September Clinton announced her opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry petroleum products from Canada's tar sands across the U.S. She declined to speak on the permit for months after she decided to run, citing the fact that she directed the State Department when the Keystone’s permitting process began.
Additionally, while Clinton has always supported moving away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy, she said in February that she would look into imposing a moratorium on oil and gas leases on federal lands, similar to the one the Obama administration has already imposed on coal leases.
Clinton also got more specific on hydraulic fracturing. She said in a December 2014 speech that natural gas could be an important bridge fuel during the transition to clean energy and that regulating fracking would be important. But in March, she clarified, “by the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place.”
These movements came on top of plans released by the Clinton campaign that lay out aggressive climate, clean energy and environmental justice goals for building on Obama’s last eight years of action.
This didn’t happen in a vacuum. Sanders's focus, and some say the focus by former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D-Md.), on the environment during the primaries prompted Clinton to speak on environment issues more, environmentalists and a Republican strategist told Bloomberg BNA.
For example, Sanders brought up climate change at debates and town halls. He introduced legislation in Congress such as the Keep It in the Ground Act in November, aimed at ending federal oil, gas and coal leasing on public lands and waters, and called several times throughout the campaign for a nationwide ban on hydraulic fracturing. He also introduced legislation that included a carbon tax.
But pressure came from more than just Clinton’s competitors. Environmental Groups—such as 350 Action—asked Clinton in states such as Iowa and New Hampshire about her views on oil and gas leases and some of her most significant shifts to the left started with these conversations, David Willett, a spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters, told Bloomberg BNA.
It isn’t possible to know whether Clinton’s actual positions would have been different without these external pressures or opportunities, Goldston said. However, it is likely that she wouldn’t have spoken on every climate and energy issues as soon or as specifically as she did, he added.
“I think [the primary] just made her come out and be honest on where she stands on these issues,” Chris Warren, a spokesman for the American Energy Alliance, told Bloomberg BNA.
Trump’s policy views on energy and environment issues seemed less affected by the primary or external factors, environmentalists, Warren and the Republican consultant said. During the primary, Trump voiced views that climate change is a hoax and generally said he supported increasing domestic fossil fuel production.
However after he became the presumptive nominee, he gave a detailed policy speech essentially adopting much of the traditional Republican position seeking energy-independence and opposing Obama's regulatory initiatives. He moved to the right in May to say that rather than renegotiate the blockbuster Paris climate agreement, he would cancel it.
Warren said Trump likely delved into these issues because increased energy production fits under Trump’s message of boosting U.S. jobs.
Chris Vieson, a partner at PSW Inc. and former director of floor operations for former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), told Bloomberg BNA that Trump likely adopted that view because it was easier than drafting his own proposal.
“The easiest thing for him to do is to take well-thought out policy positions and use them as his own,” Vieson said.
While it is common for presidential candidates to move back to the center during the general election, in this case that seems unlikely, political observers told Bloomberg BNA.
Policy issues will likely play less of a role in this election “than in any other election we’ve had,” Vieson said. Rather, it could focus more on character and temperament, similar to the Republican primary that was largely driven by personality, he said.
Even looking at policies, these primaries have set up a stark contrast for the general election should the presumptive nominees secure the nominations at the convention. Trump has pitched himself as the candidate of change, while Clinton has offered herself up as a continuation of Obama’s policies.
Adam Beitman, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, told Bloomberg BNA there isn’t really a “center” to shift to, with Trump “so out on a limb in opposition to not just scientific consensus or the international community, but in opposition to reality.”
Warren countered that Clinton is so “clearly hostile” to fossil fuels that it draws a “very clear divide,” with messages resonating with the candidates’ own parties.
Goldston summarized it well, saying despite the talk about movements to the right or to the left, the fundamental positions of these candidates is clear and has remained clear from the start on environment issues.
“It’s the fundamentals that are going to be at issue in November,” Goldston said.
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