It was not hard for Beto O’Rourke to seem like a champion of green issues during his eye-catching Senate campaign in America’s 2018 midterm elections – after all, he was up against Ted Cruz, a climate change denier.
Now, as the former US congressman vies to be the Democratic candidate to run against Donald Trump in the 2020 race for the White House, he faces much closer scrutiny on the subject.
Environmental advocates and experts wait to see if – as O’Rourke pivots from an election in a conservative-led oil state to a national primary race heavily influenced by left-leaning Democratic candidates – he will have more latitude and desire to put progressive green policies at the heart of his strategy.
“He didn’t really emphasise climate change and global warming very much when he was running against Ted Cruz, but he’s got a field that is absolutely filled with people who are making it a campaign item for voters to consider, and I think he’s going to have to adjust his narrative when he’s out on the trail,” said Robert Forbis, an assistant professor of political science at Texas Tech University. “He’s going to have to take a pretty strong stand.”
The seeds of a decisive and urgent approach were visible in his first campaign visits to Iowa in March, when O’Rourke praised the radical climate change-led proposals in the Green New Deal, citing his home state’s struggles with extreme weather such as droughts and hurricanes.
“Storms like Harvey are only going to become more frequent and more severe and more devastating and ultimately they’ll compromise the ability to live in a city like Houston, Texas,” he told the audience. O’Rourke signalled support for reducing the country’s dependence on fossil fuels and investing in green technology to reach net zero emissions.
“Some will criticise the Green New Deal for being too bold or being unmanageable. I’ll tell you what: I haven’t seen anything better that addresses the singular crisis we face, a crisis that could at its worst lead to extinction,” he said. “Literally the future of the world depends on us.”
Cruz held his Senate seat with a narrow win over O’Rourke last November. The Republican has dismissed climate change as a “pseudoscientific theory” and wrote an opinion article in 2017 urging Trump to rip up the landmark Paris climate agreement.
O’Rourke, meanwhile, wrote a blog backing the Paris accord and during six years in Congress he successfully worked to secure federal protection for more than 7,000 acres of mountainous land on the outskirts of his native El Paso.
The League of Conservation Voters’ National Environmental Scorecard gives Cruz a lifetime rating of 4% based on his voting record in Congress; O’Rourke’s score is 95%.
Still, O’Rourke’s history on environmental issues is more complex than that number might suggest – perhaps unsurprisingly for a politician who hails from west Texas.
Texas has more installed wind power capacity than any other state and solar power is growing. But the state’s economy is heavily dependent on the fossil fuel industry, which also wields immense political clout.
O’Rourke received $476,325 in campaign contributions from oil and gas sources in the 2017-18 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics – second nationally to Cruz, albeit not from Pacs and a small percentage of his total donations.
This helped fuel accusations that O’Rourke is more of a fossil fuel ally than his lofty rhetoric might imply.
The Sludge, an investigative website, reported last December that O’Rourke’s Senate campaign failed to comply with a pledge not to knowingly accept contributions of more than $200 from the oil and gas industry.
O’Rourke has not yet signed up to the pledge for 2020. “Already, five declared presidential candidates have officially signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, meaning more than a third of declared Democratic candidates have done so,” said David Turnbull, strategic communications director of Oil Change US, a group that urges politicians to commit to clean energy.
“We look forward to the sixth candidate signing the full No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, and we’re hopeful that Beto might be that candidate.”
O’Rourke’s campaign did not respond to questions about whether he plans to sign the pledge or how his qualified support for natural gas is compatible with the Green New Deal.
In 2015, O’Rourke twice voted to repeal the nationwide ban on exporting crude oil internationally, arguing that lifting the prohibition would boost the economy and national security. “We have seen the result, which is an emergency of booming fossil fuel production here in the United States at precisely the time we need to be urgently moving away from those dirty fuels,” Turnbull said.
“Similarly problematic, Beto has pointed to fracked natural gas as a potential part of the solution to the climate crisis when the reality is that there is simply no room for new fossil fuel development of any sort, including fracked gas. Like with his support for the removal of the crude export ban, we hope that when Beto lays out his full climate policies it will reflect the fact that we can’t afford any new fossil fuels of any sort, including gas.”
Given Texas’s critical importance to the environmental and economic future of the country, a Texas presidential candidate can deliver a powerful green narrative, said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, an advocacy group. “I think Texas has a real interesting story to tell in terms of our both being number one in the country for global warming pollution but also being number one for renewable energy,” he said.
“To be able to come from Texas and show we can reduce our pollution, we can invest in clean energy … I think that’s a strong message.”