PHILADELPHIA — Joe Biden’s plan to move to a clean energy economy isn’t new to those who’ve been paying attention: For months, he’s promised to put the country on a path to be carbon-neutral by 2050.
But Biden, who’s been extraordinarily cautious throughout the campaign while talking about fossil fuels, clearly believes he botched his own strategy on Thursday night.
Within minutes of the debate, where he said he wanted to transition away from the oil industry, Biden walked back his remarks with reporters. On Friday, his running mate Kamala Harris reaffirmed the ticket’s support for fracking. And two members of Congress from oil- and gas-rich areas immediately distanced themselves from the Democratic nominee.
So with only 11 days to go until the election, Biden and other Democrats are doing clean-up duty at precisely the wrong time.
“We’re not getting rid of fossil fuels,” Biden told reporters after the debate. “We’re getting rid of the subsidies for fossil fuels, but we’re not getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time.”
President Donald Trump’s campaign has spent the day rejoicing at Biden’s remarks, crowing on a call with media outlets on Friday it “put the nail in the coffin” for him in Pennsylvania. But in a sign of their confidence here in the presidential race, many Democrats in the critical battleground state, including those in fracking country, are largely shrugging it off.
“I don’t think it’s going to be an issue,” said Pennsylvania Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who hails from the western side of the state, where there’s been a fracking boom. “I think if you are fundamentally committed to or work in that industry, you’ve already made up your mind.”
Both 2020 candidates have lavished attention to the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania, the likely tipping-point state in the Electoral College. Trump has painted his opponent as hostile to fossil fuels, seeing an opportunity to pick up more votes in his strongholds in the western and northeastern parts of the state where there are numerous gas wells. In hopes of limiting his losses in those areas, or even flipping some, Biden has typically sought to be extra careful while talking about fracking and energy.
Biden’s campaign has simultaneously embraced a liberal green jobs plan that is large enough to please progressive activists — and taken pains to express opposition to a fracking ban, including at debates and a campaign stop in Pittsburgh earlier this year. His team has said the country can achieve net zero-emissions by 2050 without eliminating fossil fuels by utilizing tools such as carbon-capture technology.
Biden, however, has struggled at times to explain the particulars of his climate plan. He has garbled his position on fracking, which Trump’s campaign has seized on to make false claims. Asked at a 2019 debate whether there would be a role for coal and fracking in a Biden administration, he said, “No, we would — we would work it out,” before his campaign later clarified he didn’t support a ban.
“It absolutely helps Trump, not only in Pennsylvania, but also in Texas, Ohio and several other key states,” said Charlie Gerow, a GOP strategist in Pennsylvania who has worked on presidential campaigns. “I think even Biden realized that he stepped in it last night. You could see him trying to back-walk it.”
Democratic Reps. Kendra Horn of Oklahoma and Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico, who represent areas dependent on fossil fuel extraction, quickly distanced themselves from Biden’s comments.
“I disagree with VP Biden’s statement tonight,” Torres Small said in a tweet. “Energy is part of the backbone of New Mexico’s economy. We need to work together to promote responsible energy production and stop climate change, not demonize a single industry.”
State Sen. John Yudichak, a former Democrat who registered as an independent last year in the wake of big GOP victories around his northeastern Pennsylvania district, urged Biden to further clarify his comments when he campaigns in the state’s Luzerne County on Saturday. Yudichak has endorsed Biden but also repeatedly pushed him to embrace the gas industry.
“The vice president’s comment about ending oil and gas development in the very near future certainly hurts his chance to lock down working-class voters in northeastern Pennsylvania and throughout Pennsylvania,” Yudichak said. “We can’t dismiss building-trade, construction trade workers. We need to make sure that they don’t feel forgotten.”
Democrats in Pennsylvania expressed confidence that Biden’s prompt walk-back means the fundamental dynamics in the race won’t change. Biden is leading Trump in the state by 5 to 6 percentage points and few voters report they are undecided. Democrats believe Biden has already won over some fracking supporters at the margins, as they had hoped. They also said fracking is not a top issue for the suburban women Trump needs to win over.
“It may have an impact in some of the more rural counties out here in southwestern Pennsylvania where Donald Trump was already going to win. Maybe it peels some votes off there,” said Mike Mikus, a Pittsburgh-based Democratic strategist. “But based on all the polling I’ve seen statewide, it’s not enough to close the gap because it’s a pretty big gap.”
Still, Mikus said Biden “was not clear last night when he answered it, which is why he had to address it right before getting on the plane.”
One factor that could complicate the Trump campaign’s efforts to zero in on Biden’s comments in a way that a traditional Republican campaign in this situation would is Trump himself. Throughout the year, Trump has jumped from one line of attack on Biden to another, but nothing has really stuck.
Bobby “Mac” McAuliffe, director of Pennsylvania’s United Steelworkers District 10, also said many oil and gas workers in the union have already seen their prospects hurt because of the dive in fuel demand caused by the pandemic.
“USW members in Pennsylvania are deeply concerned about the economy and whether it will rebound after the loss of thousands of Pennsylvania jobs that resulted from the sustained lack of federal leadership,” he said. “Our members also indicated that their top concern is affordable health care, which between the still raging pandemic and the push to kill the Affordable Care Act remains front and center in this election.”
Markets have begun frowning on oil and gas. Major companies like BP are planning to deepen a transition to renewable energy, the Dow Jones Industrial Average delisted Exxon Mobil in August, and even before the pandemic-induced recession, banks were shying away from debt-laden shale drillers that consistently failed to deliver promised returns. The energy sector, which is largely composed of oil and gas companies, also has been the worst-performing on the S&P 500.
If Biden does emerge unscathed by his remarks Thursday, it may partly be due to his centrist brand. In 2016, Trump was seen as more moderate than Hillary Clinton, who was slammed after she said “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” This year, polls show Biden is viewed by voters as more down-the-middle than Trump.
After the debate, Robert Heenan, a Pennsylvania-based second vice president at the International Union of Operating Engineers, said of Biden’s comments, “What the hell was that about?”
But Heenan said he is sticking with Biden — and doesn’t think he’ll lose rank-and-file members over his remarks — because “I know he’s not going to hurt the workers.”