Oct 26, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Trump reaches for oil lifeline

Illustration of an oil well with a Trump Pence lawn sign in front
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Trump's campaign is making energy policy a prominent part of its closing swing state attacks against Joe Biden — especially in Pennsylvania, a state critical to Trump's reelection effort where he's trailing in the polls.

Driving the news: Trump's efforts include a new ad in Pennsylvania alleging that his Democratic presidential rival would crush the state's gas industry, and his campaign has aggressively deployed surrogates talking about energy in recent days.

Why it matters: Natural gas and oil are important industries in several competitive states. They include Pennsylvania, the nation's second-largest gas producer, as well as Ohio, which also has substantial gas production.

  • Texas, the nation's largest oil-and-gas producer, hasn't voted for a Democratic nominee since 1976, but the race looks tight this year.

Catch up fast: The Trump campaign is seizing on Biden's remark in Thursday's debate that he would "transition away from the oil industry," though the former vice president said it would occur "over time" amid a move to renewables.

  • They're also frequently alleging that Biden would seek to ban fracking.
  • The claim inaccurately describes Biden's platform, which aims to end new oil-and-gas permitting on federal lands but doesn't seek a national ban.
  • But his position has been unclear or appeared more aggressive multiple times, including a March debate with Sen. Bernie Sanders when Biden said, "No new fracking."
  • His campaign later claimed it was only a reference to his existing stance about federal lands.

The other side: Biden and his team have been looking to blunt the attacks over fracking and his line about the "transition" from oil.

  • "I will not ban fracking. I said no fracking on federal land," Biden told an NBC affiliate while campaigning in Pennsylvania over the weekend, one of several denials that he'd seek a ban in recent days and weeks.
  • The distinction matters. Fracking booms in Pennsylvania and Texas have been centered on private lands. But there's lots of production on federal acreage in western states like New Mexico and Colorado.

The intrigue: Biden's claim about a transition from the oil industry is consistent with his longstanding plans to greatly accelerate adoption of carbon-free power and climate-friendly transportation.

  • But his handling of the topic at the debate provided what Trump's campaign sees as a political opening, and the Biden campaign's aggressive response suggests they see some jeopardy.

What we don't know: Whether any of this will sway votes in the final days as Biden leads in the polls.

  • Proposals to expand clean energy and rein in carbon emissions typically poll very well.
  • Morning Consult and Politico published a post-debate poll finding that 57% of registered voters support phasing out the oil industry over time as the country moves to renewables.
  • 28% opposed it while 15% said they had no opinion.

Yes, but: Pennsylvania political analyst G. Terry Madonna said the attacks around fracking might help Trump, even though state polls show voters divided on the topic.

  • "Fracking is very popular in portions of the state," he said. One key thing, he said, is working class counties in the state's southwest where the gas industry is active — places Trump won by a lot in 2016 but has seen his standing erode.
  • “I am not saying it'll work,”said Madonna, who heads the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. He notes there are few undecided voters.
  • "I don’t know what [Trump] has to lose by doing it and conceivably he could gain," Madonna said of the energy-themed attacks against Biden.

Quick take: Biden's pledge not to seek a fracking ban (which would require longshot legislation) puts him at odds with swaths of the left. But progressives don't seem interested in an intra-Democratic fight — for the moment.

  • "Biden has made very clear that he does not agree with a fracking ban. It will be a privilege to lobby him should we win the White House, but we need to focus on winning the White House first," progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who co-authored the Green New Deal resolution, said on CNN Sunday.

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