Grist and Outside

This is part of a series of interviews with presidential candidates produced jointly by Grist and Outside.

Update: Joe Biden was chosen as Barack Obama’s running mate on Aug. 23, 2008. (He dropped out of the presidential race on Jan. 3, 2008.)

Joe Biden

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Joe Biden.

Joe Biden says his top priority as president would be “energy security.” “If I could wave a wand, and the Lord said I could solve one problem, I would solve the energy crisis,” he said this spring at a political rally in South Carolina. “That’s the single most consequential problem we can solve.”

During his 34-year Senate career, Biden, now chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, has been known more as a chieftain of foreign policy than a champion of environmental protections (though he has earned a respectable 84 percent lifetime voting score from the League of Conservation Voters). These days, he’s emphasizing how closely geopolitics and environmental stewardship are intertwined. To solve what he sees as the defining challenge of our time, Biden has been pushing for more U.S. involvement in international climate negotiations, more compact fluorescent light bulbs, more-stringent fuel-economy regs, and a whole lot more biofuels.

How well will Biden be able to balance his energy-independence goals with an ambitious climate agenda? I tracked him down on the campaign trail in Iowa to find out.

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For more info on his platform and record, check out Grist’s Biden fact sheet.

Listen to a clip of this interview:

Why do you consider yourself the strongest candidate on energy and the environment? What sets your platform on these issues apart from the rest?

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. 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. I held hearings this year pointing out that if we do not do something of consequence about global warming, drastically and soon, we literally are going to find ourselves reconfiguring our entire military to deal with occasions for new wars, which are going to be about territory and arable land. You see what’s happening in Darfur now — that’s part of the problem.

You’ve said that your first priority is “energy security.” Can you clarify what this goal means and how you’d achieve it?

If the predictions of the scientists are correct, you could see ocean levels rise three feet. If that occurs, you’re going to displace over 35 million people just in South Asia, and they’re going to physically be looking for a new place to land. Just that, all by itself, is going to initiate major new conflicts relating to war. You’re going to have nations fighting over arable land, more border disputes, and, as a consequence, a great deal of instability.

How would you achieve energy security? What specifically do we need to do to get there?

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. I would cap emissions at 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 and set a national RPS of 20 percent. I would announce an executive order that the federal government would not purchase one single automobile for its fleet that gets less than 40 miles to the gallon. And I would not build a single solitary federal project without it being a green project. That would have the effect of getting states to do the same thing, and that would create a pot of somewhere between a third and a half a trillion dollars that would be a lure to every major business in America to go green.

These measures would put us in a position to be able to actually attempt to lead the world. But we have no credibility right now.

How would you bring China and India to the table on a global climate treaty?

By engaging in significant joint ventures with them both on new technologies. You’re already having an awakening awareness in China about the consequences of pollution.

Sometimes the goals of achieving energy independence and reducing climate change are at odds. Would you —

Exactly right. You’re the first one who’s ever asked me a question that way.

Would you, as president, oppose subsidizing technologies that would worsen global warming, even if they would reduce our reliance on foreign oil?

Yes, I would, because at the end of the day it’s a net loser for us.

What role does “clean coal” play in your vision for energy independence and climate security?

I don’t think there’s much of a role for clean coal in energy independence, but I do think there’s a significant role for clean coal in the bigger picture of climate change. Clean-coal technology is not the route to go in the United States, because we have other, cleaner alternatives. But I would invest a considerable amount of money in research and development of clean-coal and carbon-sequestration technologies for export. China is building one new coal-fired plant per week. That’s not going to change unless there’s a fundamental change in technology, because they have about 300 years of dirty coal, and they’re going to use it.

Would you impose a moratorium on the development of old-style coal power plants in the U.S.?

I believe that all new coal-fired power plants should be built with carbon capture and sequestration capacity.

What’s your position on liquefied coal?

Again, I don’t think it’s the way to go in the U.S., but we could invest in technologies for export. I don’t think there’s any reasonable prospect that China, as it continues to grow to 1.4 billion people, is not going to use their coal.

What role do you see for nuclear power?

I see a role for nuclear, but first you’ve got to deal with the security as well as the safety concerns. I’d be spending a whole hell of a lot of money trying to figure out how to reconfigure the spent fuel into reusable fuel. I would not invest in [growing our nuclear-power capacity in its current form], but I would invest in sorting out the storage and waste problems.

What fuel-economy targets do you support?

I think we should be able to get to 40 miles per gallon by 2017. I think we should have every single vehicle in America have to get one mile per year additional fuel economy, based on the class and size of the automobile, not on CAFE standards.

Where does ethanol fit into your plan?

Ethanol is a good start. Because of the amount of [resources] that go into producing corn-based ethanol, it has only marginally less impact on the consumption of fossil fuels. But it has two real advantages: it begins to give us the margin of flexibility we need to deal with being held hostage to any one of the seven unstable countries that supply 35 percent of our oil — Nigeria, Venezuela, Iraq, Iran, etc. No. 2, it’s a transitional means by which you’re going to be pouring billions of dollars into the fields of the Midwest, rather than the sands of Saudi Arabia or the pockets of Chavez.

How would you structure policies to shift the ethanol industry away from corn and toward cellulosic or other more climate-friendly fuels?

With considerably more research and incentivizing. Right out here in Iowa, where I am right now, you already have producers and cattlemen and the rest saying, this is not such a good deal for us having this corn-based ethanol orgy that’s going on here, because long-term it’s not sustainable. Corn ethanol will always be a part of the alternative fuel mix, but it is not long-term sustainable as the only feedstock for ethanol because we can only produce around 12 billion to 17 billion gallons of ethanol from corn grown in this country. But we can produce 86 billion gallons of ethanol from cellulosic feedstocks, which could replace more than half the gas consumed by this country. An awful lot of these farmers are already looking for the next step, and they know it is cellulosics.

What environmental achievement are you proudest of?

It took me 10 years to protect all of the beach on the Delaware coast from Cape Henlopen down to Rehoboth Beach, and put it in trust for the people of the country so that no development can take place on any of that area. I’m also proud that I convinced the state of Delaware to take the entire White Clay Creek watershed and turn it into a scenic river, stop the development in that whole region, and purify that watershed.

Who is your environmental hero?

Russell Peterson. I was a young [county] councilman in 1970 when he was a Republican governor of Delaware. I introduced legislation saying that Getty Oil and these other companies could not build any refineries within one mile of the high-water mark of the Delaware River and Delaware Bay. He turned that into the first coastal zone act in the United States of America. He later left the Republican Party and became a Democrat, but that’s not why I admire him. He was for years the president of the National Audubon Society, where he did a great deal for the environment.

What has been your most memorable outdoor or wilderness adventure?

My most memorable outdoor adventure was traveling 1,500 miles in Alaska with the National Guard, going from Prudhoe Bay to the Tongass Forest and all the way out into the Aleutian Islands in the Bering Sea. I found it an absolutely remarkable, fascinating, incredibly moving event. I landed in a Mustang suit up in the North Slope when they were trying to talk me into allowing more drilling. Two of the great things I’ve fought for in my career were protecting the Tongass National Forest and preventing more drilling in the North Slope.

What have you done personally to reduce your energy and environmental footprint?

A little thing we’ve begun to do is replace all the traditional light bulbs in our house with fluorescent light bulbs. I introduced a bill to promote compact fluorescent light bulbs. If every family in America changed just one bulb, we could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 7 million tons per year. There are a lot of little things we can do to make a gigantic change.

If you could spend a week in a park or natural area of the United States, where would it be?

I’d go back to Yellowstone. I took my kids there early on, and God, I loved it.