OPINION: US voters go to the polling booths on 3 November for a landmark presidential election that will be watched closely around the world.

The result will affect energy policy in the US oil heartlands, but its impact will ripple out to the Middle East, China and beyond.

The re-election of Donald Trump would give another short-term confidence boost to US drillers used to enjoying warm links to the White House.

Victory for his Democratic challenger Joe Biden could herald a major change in policy direction, with “green” energy the new order of the day.

The importance of a Biden victory for the rest of the world would not just be a pivot away from an overtly nationalist fossil fuel agenda.

It would remove the brake from having a US leadership role in global attempts to combat the growing disruption from climate change.

Last week, energy policy was at the centre of a dramatic final TV debate in Nashville between the two main candidates.

Biden was asked by Trump if he would close down the oil industry. “I would transition from the oil industry, yes,” responded the Democrat, adding, "because the oil industry pollutes significantly.”

Biden said fossil fuels must be replaced by renewable energy over time to help the US meet carbon emissions-reduction goals.

These comments were seized on by Trump as a “big mistake” that would lose Biden the support of five or six oil-rich states.


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This election is more likely to be decided on Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic — which has claimed 200,000 lives in the US — than by the president’s energy policy.

In reality, Biden's comments were a restatement of his plans to spend $2 trillion on low-carbon initiatives.

The plan is to run down subsidies to the fossil fuel sector and create jobs elsewhere, but no-one talks of a blunt axe being wielded on oil and gas.

The truth is that the more radical change was introduced by Trump, who rolled back environmental regulation and opened up new areas for drilling.

He has given financial aid to the sector and spurred on the Opec+ cuts, but none of that has been enough to halt the collapse in oil prices or oil stock valuations.

Flagship US oil major ExxonMobil has just got turfed out of the S&P 500 index of top stocks for the first time since 1928.

The current president is a storyteller, not a truth teller, and playing to the crowd does no service for an energy sector that needs to deal with hard truths if it is to survive and prosper.

It may be tempting for shale drillers and any others living hand to mouth due to the fallout from Covid-19 to seek one more euphoric injection of verbal hyperbole or financial help from Trump.

But the world’s top investors and European oil majors are already putting their money into a low-carbon revolution as much as retaining commitments to fossil fuels.

They know the future of the planet lies in tackling global warming and that means an energy transition of the kind Biden understands and younger generations certainly want.

The US oil industry has a chance to control the low-carbon policymaking agenda if it changes direction now — and only one of the candidates offers a choice consistent with that challenge.

(This is an Upstream opinion piece.)