The Wrong Answer
During the second and final presidential debate, this happened:
In the following days, I saw a lot of friends posting to Facebook. They were saying things like,
“Hi, everyone. I don’t get on here a lot. And lord knows I don’t like talking about politics. But last night in the debate, Joe Biden said he is in favor of ending the oil industry. Just in Texas, the oil industry employs more than 450,000 people. Those are good jobs. My job is a good job. The oil industry is important. This is the line in the sand. Don’t vote to take my job away.”
Watch Trump’s face when Biden gives this answer. For the first time all night, he was in his comfort zone — confident-smug, instead of smug-as-a-defense-mechanism.
Republican strategists and talking heads were excited in the post-debate discussions. They smelled an opportunity — something to stem the bleeding in the polls. Biden did some “I’d like to clarify” interviews that got a bit of play, and Trump and his team some “Did you hear that thing Joe said about the oil industry????” interviews.
The news cycle moved on, and Democrats hoped the country’s moderates, centrists, and “I mean, I’m still a Republican I can’t vote for a moron” voters had forgotten about Biden threatening the livelihoods of a large swath of the country.
But it is my opinion that just like coal jobs in the Appalachians in 2016, oil jobs were a major motivating factor in the 2020 election.
If you or someone you know works in the oil industry, you didn’t forget those 30 seconds of the debate. You couldn’t. All of a sudden, the fear-mongers on Fox News didn’t sound so crazy. It was true: Democrats were out to destroy America.
I wanted to reach through the TV and punch Biden in the face when he gave this answer. “We have to get to carbon neutral” is not the right answer to the question.
In fact, it’s not even an answer to the real question.
When someone says, “Do you want to shut down the oil industry?” the answer is not “Yes, but it’s not a shutdown, it’s a transition.” In fact, as I sit here thinking about it, I’m surprised Biden ended up surviving this gaffe.
Not only was his answer strategically stupid, it was also a huge missed opportunity. Trump said, “Do you think a whole bunch of people watching should be scared of you?” and Biden said, “Yes, but only because they deserve it.”
Which is a tragedy, because Joe Biden, as a centrist Democrat, isn’t actually the boogie man here. In an attempt to be honest about a problem most Americans don’t understand, he accidentally admitted to creating that problem. But he didn’t create it. He’s just acknowledging that it needs to be solved.
Here’s what he should have said instead:
The Right Answer
Look, here’s the deal.
Right now, today, if I want to build a new power plant, do you know what the cheapest possible power plant I can build is, in terms of cost per kilowatt-hour? Wind.
The second cheapest? Solar.
And then comes natural gas.
Without subsidies — I’m talking WITHOUT ANY SUBSIDIES, green energy is now the lowest cost, best investment in the industry.
And do you know what the fastest growing car company, and the fastest growing car model in the world is? Tesla, and its Model 3. And Tesla has used up all of its federal tax incentives. You don’t even get a federal tax rebate anymore when you buy one, and they’re still flying off the shelves.
Green tech is the future. It’s happening. It’s cheaper, it’s quieter, it’s cleaner, and — as a bonus — it slows down climate change.
Over the next few decades, the oil industry is going to be replaced by the green tech industry, whether we want that to happen or not. Whether we prop it up or not. Whether we keep subsidizing it or not.
The question now isn’t whether we want oil to go away. It’s whether we want a piece of what replaces it.
This country — The United States of America — has led every significant technological revolution since it has existed. Think about that! Since 1776, there hasn’t been a major development that American companies and the American people didn’t make a fortune on. Industrialization? Check. Cars? Yep, we did that. Tractors? American. The telegraph. The telephone. Television. Space. Satellites. The internet.
And now, at a time when the world economy is the most connected and competitive its ever been — with China breathing down our necks — we’re going to let this one pass us by?
I don’t want American oil companies to suffer, and I don’t want American oil workers to lose their jobs. I really don’t. But even more than that, I don’t want their children and grandchildren to miss out on an entire generation of solar and wind and battery jobs because we decided that for the first time in more than 150 years, this country was going to sit back and let the rest of the world take the lead.
Green energy is inevitable. If that sounds crazy to you, give it a Google — it really is already cheaper. It comes with a ton of problems that need to be solved. But solving those problems is the next gold rush! This is not about whether or not to shut down an industry. It’s about whether or not to get in on the next one.
If I’m elected, I promise that I will do my best to make sure that as long as oil and natural gas are competitive, American oil and gas continues to prosper. But I also promise that I’ll work my tail off to make sure that when it comes to the next phase of the energy economy, Americans will not be left behind. That when my grand-kids and your grand-kids are up on this stage debating or at home watching in 60 years, they’re not talking about how to come from behind. They’re talking about the responsibilities of being exactly where this country is supposed to be — in the goddamned lead.
A little jingoistic there at the end, but in a Sorkin-esque, “I got goosebumps even though I didn’t think I cared” sort of way, right?
If this was 1985, maybe we’d need to have a conversation about whether to purposefully dis-incentivize the oil industry in favor of something better for the planet. But today, all we have to do is decide how far to stick our heads in the sand, because the market has already done the hard work for us. We can pretend oil has an unlimited future because we’re already good at oil, or we can face reality, embrace oil’s short-term economic upside, and make a plan for what to do when it’s over.
The clock is ticking, and someone’s going to reap the rewards either way.