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Eco-activists Pleased With Biden's Green Record

Sep 25, 2008 | Updated May 25, 2011

In a 3 a.m. blast of emails and text messages, Democrat Barack Obama announced that his selection for a vice presidential candidate is Delaware Sen. Joe Biden. And, for the most part, representatives from the environmental community were pleased with the news they awoke to Saturday morning.

During his 35 years in the Senate, Biden has been most active on the Foreign Relations Committee, which he now chairs. But in that time he has also racked up a respectable environmental record, earning an 83 percent lifetime voting score from the League of Conservation Voters. LCV, which has endorsed Obama, today rushed out a statement praising Biden.

"Joe Biden recognizes that ending our addiction to oil is vital to our national security," LCV President Gene Karpinski said. "Sen. Biden is a long-time leader on key energy and environmental issues, and the members of LCV enthusiastically support Sen. Obama's choice."

LCV noted that in 1986, Biden introduced the first bill designed to limit global warming pollution, the Global Climate Protection Act. In recent years, he has held Foreign Affairs Committee hearings on the national-security implications of global warming, and he teamed with Republican Sen. Dick Lugar (Ind.) to coauthor and pass out of that committee a resolution calling on the Bush administration to engage seriously in international climate negotiations.

Representatives of big green groups touted Biden's long-standing interest in environmental issues and his background in international relations as evidence that he would be a champion for their causes in the White House.

"Biden has a really strong environmental record," said Sierra Club spokesperson David Willett. "He has been outspoken about global warming for a long time. We think that will make a very strong team. Biden has demonstrated a commitment and values that were the reason we endorsed Barack Obama."

Friends of the Earth Action President Brent Blackwelder told Grist that his group was also pleased with the choice of Biden: "Combining somebody who believes that global warming is a priority and is ready with the foreign policy experience, you have a coherent and new direction, unlike what we've seen over the last eight years," he said. "I think you're going to see a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy, where we can regain some of this lost leadership."

Blackwelder said Obama's VP choice "enhances the overall electability of the ticket." FOE Action was the first big green group to endorse Obama, when he was neck and neck with Hillary Clinton during the primaries.

Biden was also in the running for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination this year, but dropped out after a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses in January. During the primary race, he cited "energy security" as his top priority, and connected it to his work in foreign affairs, emphasizing that geopolitics and environmental stewardship are intertwined.

"If I could wave a wand, and the Lord said I could solve one problem, I would solve the energy crisis," he said at a South Carolina campaign rally. "That's the single most consequential problem we can solve."

In an interview with Grist last year, Biden emphasized that his experience in international relations would help bring the United States into productive discussions about a global climate pact.

"I would be most capable of getting this country back into an international climate regime, getting us back to the table the fastest and with the most prospect for success, because of my extensive engagement in foreign policy," Biden told Grist. "I'm also in the best position to make it clear to the United States Congress that this is not merely an environmental issue, it is a security issue."

Biden continued, "To deal with global warming, you have to change the attitude of the world, particularly China and India, the two largest developing nations. But in order to do that, to have any credibility, you have to begin here in the United States by capping emissions, increasing renewable fuels, establishing a national renewable portfolio standard, requiring better fuel economy for automobiles."

On the domestic front, enviros note that Biden's proposals dovetail with those Obama has put forward. Like Obama, Biden has called for capping greenhouse-gas emissions at 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and he signed on as a cosponsor of the Boxer-Sanders Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act, the toughest climate bill in the Senate. Biden has also called for a renewable portfolio standard that would require an increasing percentage of U.S. electricity to come from renewable sources, and he's been a vocal opponent of opening new areas of the country to oil and gas drilling, advocating for the protection of the Outer Continental Shelf, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the North Slope of Alaska.

From his post on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden has been a harsh critic of the oil industry. In a 2006 hearing on rising oil prices and energy industry mergers, Biden asked executives from ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and other companies if they thought they should keep getting $2.8 billion in federal subsidies at a time of record profits.

Biden has worked to push the auto industry toward cleaner technologies. While campaigning for president, he called for fuel-economy standards for automobiles to be raised to 40 miles per gallon by 2017, and said he would require the federal government to purchase only automobiles that get at least 40 mpg. He called for federal spending of $100 million a year on research and development of lithium-ion batteries to be used in plug-in hybrids. Along with Obama, he was a cosponsor of the bipartisan Fuel Economy Reform Act, a measure to raise vehicle fuel-efficiency standards by 4 percent each year and provide tax incentives for automakers to update their factories in order to achieve this goal. In 2007, he sponsored the American Automobile Industry Promotion Act, which would support R&D on electric car motors and batteries. Biden has also been a strong supporter of biofuels.

Blackwelder of FOE Action is cheered by Biden's support of public transportation. Biden, who commutes roundtrip from Delaware to D.C. each workday on Amtrak, has long promoted the national rail system. He was named "Champion of the Rails" by Amtrak in 2001, and the American Passenger Rail Coalition presented him with a "Rail Leadership Award" in 2002.

Biden and Obama have differed on a few environmental issues. Biden voted against the 2005 Energy Policy Act, a sweeping, oil-friendly energy bill that enviros largely opposed; Obama voted for it, citing its support for ethanol and "clean coal" technology. Biden has been much less enthusiastic than Obama about "clean coal," telling Grist last year, "I don't think there's much of a role for clean coal in energy independence" -- though he did note that advanced coal technology could be important in other nations like China.

Environment America Executive Director Margie Alt called Biden a "solid choice for the environment." But she emphasized that Obama and his new running mate need to make sure the environment remains a top priority even while they're coping with big issues like the economy and the war in Iraq.

"A lot of things will be competing for the attention of the new administration, and I think it's important that the Obama-Biden administration realizes not only the environment fundamentals, but that all of the proposals for a clean energy future will be really helpful for the economy at the same time that they help the environment," said Alt. "I think there really is a good opportunity there to prioritize these issues and solve a lot of problems at once, and I hope the administration will be able to quickly take advantage of that."