Joe Biden’s campaign is walking an environmental tightrope in Pennsylvania, aiming to balance his new, aggressive climate plan with reassurances that he won’t seek to gut the fracking industry that has turned the state’s natural gas riches into an economic engine.
Pennsylvania is among the handful of states that Biden needs to win to defeat President Donald Trump, and it has tilted toward the presumptive Democratic nominee as criticism of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has mounted. At the same time, Biden has adopted more of the environmental goals pushed by Sen. Bernie Sanders and others in the party’s progressive wing, raising the risks that he could alienate the blue collar workers who operate the wells and pipelines that move the gas from the Marcellus Shale in the Keystone State.
“The question is about who is Joe Biden, right? Is it labor Biden or Green New Deal Biden?” said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center. “He is trying to figure out how to blend the history of his career, which has been about infrastructure investments and economic modernization, with the clear kind of future imperative of decarbonization. And those call on different parts of his character.”
Trump won Pennsylvania and its 20 Electoral College Votes by less one percentage point in 2016, but polls released last week show Biden leading in the state by 13 points. Both candidates have been frequent visitors to the state — Biden announced his economic recovery plan there earlier this month, and Trump has addressed oil and gas industry events there and toured the site of a new Shell petrochemical plant.
The stark differences in their policies were on display this week. Biden announced plans to spend $2 trillion on clean energy in a bid to stoke enthusiasm among national younger, more progressive voters who have been skeptical of his commitment to green issues. Trump meanwhile announced measures to limit environmental reviews under the bedrock National Environmental Protection Act of 1970, and touted his administration’s long list of deregulatory actions.
Trump has portrayed Biden’s clean energy plans as a threat to the U.S. economy, and said the former vice president is taking orders from Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of lead sponsors of last year’s Green New Deal resolution that called for rapidly transitioning the U.S. economy away from fossil fuels.
“[Biden’s team] still haven’t explained what they could do to power our great plants and factories, but at some point I’m sure we’ll learn that from AOC, who’s in charge of energy,” Trump said Wednesday in Atlanta, referring to the New York congresswoman who was on the Biden-Sanders “unity” policy task force. “She’s in charge along with Bernie. AOC and Bernie, our judge of energy.”
Biden has pitched his clean energy plan as an economic stimulus that will help clean up the environment, including plugging thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells that pose ecological hazards. And he’s taken pains to say that although he wants the nation’s power plants to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2035 and for more cars to run on electric power, he doesn’t plan to try to outlaw fracking, the technology that lifted U.S. oil and gas production to record levels last year and has made the country the world’s leading energy producer.
But Biden has said he would not allow new oil and gas development on federal land or waters. And in one debate, he misstated his own position, saying he would allow “no new fracking,” which his campaign immediately walked back. The Trump campaign, however, broadcast the slip to paint Biden as aligned with Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who both have called for national fracking bans.
Biden has otherwise been consistent, even telling a news station near his Scranton, Pa., hometown earlier this month “fracking is not going to be on the chopping block.” He’s often noted most fracking happens on state and private lands and that prohibiting the practice would require congressional action. That’s unlikely to draw much political support, given thousands of jobs spread across dozens of districts represented by both Republicans and Democrats — including an estimated 26,000 in in Pennsylvania.
Despite his reassurances that he won’t seek to ban fracking, Pennsylvania gas drillers have zeroed in on Biden’s debate stage gaffe, said David Spigelmyer, president of industry group Marcellus Shale Coalition. And the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action has spent more than $1.2 million in Pennsylvania on political advertisements hitting Biden on fracking.
“I think there’s a lot of distrust there,” Spigelmyer said of Biden. “It is also concerning that the far left of his party is pushing him to eliminate hydraulic fracturing.”
Spigelmyer has already asked Trump to speak again at the group’s annual conference, which is scheduled for this fall, and he is planning to invite Biden to clear up his position on the issue.
But the confusion around Biden’s position irks some of his advocates.
“I don’t know how many times he has to say he does not favor banning fracking. I want to see what the lack of clarity is. I mean, he has said that how many times on the record including in the past week?” said Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), who helped develop many of the climate and energy policy recommendations that Biden included in his new environmental agenda.
Pennsylvania Democrats contend that Biden’s fracking stance and his calls to transition the economy to clean energy will benefit his campaign in the state.
“I’ve always said Democrats need to get honest about energy, and Republicans need to get honest about climate. And I think Joe Biden walks that line very effectively,” said Pennsylanvia Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat who hails from the natural gas-rich western portion of the state. “And he is absolutely immune to any attempts to try to paint him as some kind of ‘ban fracking on the first day’ with hard environmental terms.”
But Fetterman said the current economic worries and public health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic are likely to overshadow fracking for most voters in the state in this year’s election.
Mike Mikus, a western Pennsylvania Democratic consultant, agreed, and said people’s minds are already made up between Biden and Trump. A Monmouth University poll released Wednesday showed Biden leading Trump in the state by 13 percentage points.
Still, Biden’s positioning that fracking will continue for now but that the region needs to prepare for an inevitable transition to clean energy resonates beyond the actual industry. That frankness shows respect for middle class values that will be key to turning out northeastern Pennsylvania, said Fetterman, who campaigned for Clinton in 2016.
Mikus acknowledges the political sentiment is different in the southwestern part of the state, where he says polling indicates Biden would benefit from some “targeted communication” to make his fracking position clearer. And he says Biden’s path to victory will require him to peel off some votes in counties that are likely to back Trump.
“They’re looking for somebody who’s going to aggressively work to fix the climate change change problem, while also understanding the realities that, you know, if fracking went away today, a lot of people would lose their jobs and energy costs would go up,” Mikus said of the state’s voters.
For green advocates, however, Biden’s reluctance to take a stronger stance against fossil fuel production is troubling, particularly amid the rising warnings from scientists that aggressive active is needed now to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. While he has received praise from green groups, it’s not clear whether they’ll bring the same intensity to helping his campaign that that they did for Bernie Sanders.
“The level of excitement amongst young people in these places — it’s not where we want it to be and we know we’ve got our hands full trying to make sure these people get out,” said Evan Weber, political director with the youth-led environmental group Sunrise Movement, which has led the charge for a Green New Deal. “The Biden campaign making its commitment to these issues — to moving off fossil fuels, to addressing the climate crisis at scale — more firm and clear would make our job a lot easier.”
Holly Otterbein contributed to this report.