Democratic presidential candidate and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on June 24 released one of the most expansive plans of any leading politician to end the fossil fuel era. His “Freedom from Fossil Fuels” proposal not only eliminates the federal support of fossil fuels but also actively shuts down the industry and makes polluters pay.
One of his proposals involves the “buying out and decommissioning of fossil fuel assets.” This makes him the first 2020 presidential contender to embrace the idea, testing the willingness of politicians to confront the power of the fossil fuel industry and support a bold timeline for action.
A poll of about 1,000 people done by YouGov for the Democracy Collaborative shows significant public support (38%) for a public takeover of fossil fuel assets for the purpose of executing a green transition, with 32% opposed. Further, when creating jobs for affected workers in the green energy sector is explicitly included in such a plan, support jumps to 47%, and opposition declines to 27%. (See charts below.) This is significant because it speaks to the political potency of this strategy.
Why should the federal government take over fossil fuel assets? Fossil fuel companies continue to be thoroughly committed to extracting and marketing as much coal, oil, and gas as possible, and will use their political and economic weight to get that done. A public takeover of fossil fuel assets eliminates this gridlock by breaking the connection between carbon extraction and corporate profit and ensures that we provide a just transition to workers.
Now, when fossil fuel companies go bankrupt, the transition plan is to allow them to terminate pension fund obligations and cut jobs while giving lavish payouts to CEOs and engineering their return to the business of consuming more fossil fuels and moving the planet closer to ecological catastrophe. In coal country, Westmoreland Coal filed for bankruptcy in 2018. In the process, the company left more than 250 active employees and 1,000 retirees and their families in the lurch while executives received $1.5 million bonuses.
Taking over the fossil fuel assets ourselves allows us to flip the script, centering workers, community, and climate over CEOs. We could build a dove-tailing strategy to revitalize these extracted communities and mobilize the US towards a zero-carbon future.
While several 2020 presidential contenders have put together proposals for stopping extraction on public lands, Inslee’s plan recognizes that US federal lands only account for 40 percent of national coal production, a quarter of oil, and one-eighth of gas. A complete plan to address the climate crisis would have to address fossil fuel production on private lands. That is what makes the Inslee plan distinctive.