Fossil Fuel Phaseout is Popular

By Charlie Jiang (@charlieyj12)

In late august, Bernie Sanders’ proposal for a Green New Deal heavily featured his plans to take on the fossil fuel industry. He joins a growing number of 2020 presidential contenders who are proposing to phase out coal, oil, and gas production and to put workers and communities first in a transition to a new economy. 

Of the 18 major Democrats remaining in the race, sixteen have taken the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge to reject campaign contributions above $200 from fossil fuel company executives, PACs, and lobbyists; thirteen support ending new fossil fuel leasing on public lands; and twelve support eliminating all fossil fuel production subsidies and tax giveaways.

Does focusing on fossil fuel production hurt these candidates’ chances?

Recent analysis from Data for Progress, Greenpeace USA, and others finds that the answer is no. Efforts to constrain fossil fuel production are not only necessary to limit warming to 1.5°C, but they are also popular.

Our analysis finds that if the U.S. doesn’t take steps to restrict domestic production of coal, oil, and gas, we will undermine efforts to mitigate climate change. This is true even if we effectively wean our economy off fossil fuels by shifting to 100 percent renewable energy. According to an analysis by Oil Change International, there is no room for new fossil fuel production in a 1.5°C world. In fact, we will need to wind down a significant number of existing projects and instead invest in a just and equitable transition for workers.

Yet U.S. fossil fuel companies are planning to expand oil and gas production faster than any other country in the next decade. That’s why policies to stop fossil fuel expansion and manage a just and equitable phaseout of existing fossil fuel production are critical to any comprehensive climate policy. As we’re building the green and equitable future we want, we need to stop digging the hole we’re currently in. To start, this means:

  • Halting drilling for oil and gas on public lands.

  • Eliminating tax breaks and subsidies for fossil fuel production.

  • Banning exports of crude oil, coal, and liquified natural gas.

  • Rejecting new fossil fuel production projects that will exacerbate climate pollution.

Confronting Fossil Fuel Polluters is Popular

Contrary to conventional wisdom in Washington, DC, Americans support policies to put the brakes on fossil fuel production—even taking into account negative media coverage of the Green New Deal (the “Fox News factor”). A Data for Progress and YouGov Blue survey of 1,012 registered voters conducted in March and April 2019 found that among all voters:

  • Net +27 percent support a mandated “climate test” to assess climate impacts of all new infrastructure projects requiring federal permits.

  • Net +25 percent support ending federal fossil fuel subsidies.

  • Net +21 percent support requiring a phaseout of coal plants in the next ten years.

Democrats overwhelmingly support these policies to curtail fossil fuel production—and independent voters side with Democrats.


Another survey by 350 Action and Data for Progress with YouGov Blue found that 76 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of independents support policies to prohibit new fossil fuel plants and pipelines when renewable-energy alternatives are available. 


Democrats increasingly understand the utility of keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Eighty-two percent of Democrats say restricting the supply of fossil fuels is “essential” or “helpful” to climate policy, according to National Green Advocacy Project polling conducted in March 2019.

Our analysis shows that taking on the fossil fuel industry by pledging to phase out fossil fuel production is not just good policy for Democrats—it’s also good politics. Democrats that position themselves as prepared to take on the power of the fossil fuel industry are likely to find strong support from Democratic and independent voters increasingly concerned about Big Oil’s role in exacerbating the climate crisis and preventing action.

Americans have good reason to worry. Fossil fuel companies are already spending millions to undermine the Green New Deal, while industry executives and lobbyists fill Trump’s cabinet. The five largest oil companies (ExxonMobil, Shell, Total, BP, and Chevron) have spent nearly $1 billion since 2016 on misleading, greenwashing campaigns to undercut truly ambitious climate policies. Meanwhile, these same companies plan to invest more than $550 billion to explore for new oil and gas in the next decade—oil and gas that we cannot afford to burn. 

Will Democrats position themselves as friend or foe of the fossil fuel polluters standing in the way of a Green New Deal? For leading Democrats—particularly in the crowded presidential race—the answer could well determine whether they can win over the overwhelming majority of Americans seeking leaders who will tackle the climate crisis with the urgency we need.

Charlie Jiang is a climate campaigner at Greenpeace USA.

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