Joe Biden Said He Wants to 'Transition From the Oil Industry.' That Shouldn't Be a Surprise

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., on Oct. 22, 2020.

When former Vice President Joe Biden said at Thursday’s presidential debate that he wanted to “transition from the oil industry,” President Donald Trump pounced.

“Oh, that’s a big statement,” Trump said, later adding, “He’s going to destroy the oil industry. Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania?”

Despite Trump’s taunts, Biden has laid out a plan to eliminate the U.S. carbon footprint by 2050. Moving away from producing oil over time is an obvious component of any plan that truly reckons with climate change, including Biden’s. Nearly 80% of U.S. energy-related emissions came from oil and gas last year. The math is unavoidable: the industry will need to evolve dramatically, or disappear.

“The oil industry pollutes significantly,” Biden said. “It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time. Over time.”

In a sense, the exchange offered a variation on a debate that’s been happening on the campaign trail, particularly in places with a large oil industry presence. That discussion has largely centered around fracking: Trump has accused Biden of planning to ban fracking and Biden has insisted he has no intention of doing so (a point his running-mate made emphatically at the vice-presidential debate.)

Biden’s statement may sound like tough love for the millions whose jobs are linked to the industry, but the truth is that the transition is already happening for a variety of reasons. Market forces have played a big role, and the oil industry is already in difficult straits. A collapse in oil prices earlier this year drove some smaller firms out of business and led to major overhauls—including layoffs—at many of the bigger ones.

Many analysts believe the world may never consume as much oil in a year as did it did in 2019. These realities have driven growing acknowledgement within the industry that it needs to adapt. Some companies have charted a long-term transition away from oil and gas and into renewables, electricity or other energy-related businesses.

The U.S. also faces international pressure to decarbonize as an array of countries—including China and the European Union—have committed to eliminating their carbon footprints, and have slowly begun ratcheting up the pressure on the U.S. to do the same.

All of these factors make Trump’s outrage over a “transition from the oil industry” a little detached from the reality. The transition will happen. The bigger question is “what does it look like?”

Biden has sought to shift attention away from the decline in fossil fuels to the opportunity that such a transition would present to create jobs. His climate plan includes support massive investment in clean energy. Trump has presented nothing, leaving oil communities vulnerable to the industry’s long-term decline and all the gyrations that may happen on the way.