“We are truly now, more than ever, the last great hope of this Earth,” Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke ended a video announcing his presidential bid. “At this moment of maximum peril and maximum potential, let’s show ourselves and those who will succeed us in this great country just who we are and what we can do.”
That sounds pretty green and maybe even refreshing after two years of Donald Trump. But O’Rourke’s candidacy is kind of like the iceberg lettuce of politics. You can load it up with whatever you want, but underneath all the dressing and crunchy topping seems to be a whole lot of nothing. As political scientist Lee Drutman put it: “He knows how to be an empty vessel for hopes and dreams.”
O’Rourke wants to be everything to everyone. To take a look back at his career, that’s an invitation he’s extended to the fossil fuel industry. With just about 11 years to begin rapidly transitioning the US off of fossil fuels – per the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – an O’Rourke presidency is not a risk the US or the world can afford to take.
As an analysis by the not-for-profit news site Capital and Main has shown, his six-year record in Congress – representing a solidly blue district – included siding with Republicans more than his fellow Democrats did, including on some key climate votes.
O’Rourke voted twice to lift longstanding restrictions on crude oil exports. The decision was a boon to the world’s most dangerous industry, making the reckless exploration of reserves in the Permian and Appalachian Basin profitable and helping to set the US on the path to becoming a net exporter of fossil fuels; two years after the vote, exports had tripled.
As Oil Change International has found, the continued expansion of these reserves – including in the US – is flatly incompatible with averting catastrophic levels of global warming. Allowed to continue on the path they’re currently on, fossil fuel companies would turn the US into the world’s largest new sources of oil and gas extraction by 2030 – outranking the next biggest producer, Canada, by a factor of four to one. The results for the climate would be devastating, releasing an amount of greenhouse gases equivalent to the lifetime emissions of nearly 1,000 coal-fired power plants.
He voted with the Republican party as well to encourage more natural gas exports, and to stop a Democratic bill to ban drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. And as recently as October, O’Rourke voiced his support for an all-of-the-above energy policy that’s out of step with scientific reality, repeating a fossil fuel industry talking point that indefinitely continued oil and gas production is a way to “help us meet some of the challenges of climate change”.
To his credit, O’Rourke announced on Tuesday his support for a Green New Deal at an Iowa campaign event, and his intention to “reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, to get to net zero emissions”. The next several months of his campaign might see him evolve on these issues still farther. Yet if he really is committed to that goal, it’s a wonder why he has yet to take the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, being circulated by the Sunrise Movement and other Green New Deal advocates. The pledge bars candidates from taking campaign donations from fossil fuel industry employees of amounts greater than $200 – low enough to include grassroots donations from the industry’s blue-collar workers in his home state, to whom a Green New Deal would ensure a just transition, and yet high enough to exclude patronage from those companies’ homicidal executives. After initially joining during his Senate campaign, O’Rourke was found to have violated it by accepting generous fossil fuel industry donations and was removed.
The kind of lofty rhetoric about the threat of climate change that O’Rourke is fond of will not cool the planet. But O’Rourke’s friends in the fossil fuel industry will do everything in their power to warm it. If he wants to live up to his ambitious talk on the climate crisis, he will have to be willing to do battle with the companies doing the most to further it.
Kate Aronoff is a freelance writer based in New York