President Donald Trump seized on Joe Biden’s call for a transition from oil to renewable energy Thursday night, appealing directly to voters in the energy-producing states of Texas, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma to take heed of what his campaign later described as the Democratic nominee’s “pledge to end the oil industry.”
Biden’s actual remark came as something of a verbal stumble amid heated crosstalk. For nearly 12 minutes toward the end of the final presidential debate, he touted union support for his clean-energy jobs plan and toed a nuanced line on fracking, repelling Trump’s attempts to tie him to progressive calls to phase out that drilling practice altogether.
Trump asked Biden: “Would you close down the oil industry?”
“Yes, I would transition from the oil industry,” said Biden, adding: “The oil industry pollutes significantly. ... It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.”
Scientifically, that was not controversial. Virtually all climate research indicates that to keep global temperatures from reaching catastrophic new heights, oil use must be dramatically phased down. But in the bitter final days of the election, Biden seemed to deliver Trump and his industry allies material for attack ads aimed at workers already struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The oil industry’s biggest lobby hit back quickly. “We aren’t going anywhere,” Mike Sommers, chief executive of the American Petroleum Institute, said in a press release after the debate.
At least two vulnerable House Democrats from oil-producing regions condemned the remark.
“Here’s one of the places Biden and I disagree,” Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.) wrote in a tweet. “We must stand up for our oil and gas industry.”
Another freshman Democrat, Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.), urged Biden not to “demonize a single industry.”
In Monessen, Pennsylvania, a former steel-mill city an hour’s drive southeast of Pittsburgh, Mayor Matt Shorraw said edited clips of Biden seemingly vowing to shut down oil production could proliferate on Facebook and sway rural voters traumatized by decades of Rust Belt decay.
“A lot of these communities have been burned in the past,” Shorraw, who has endorsed Biden, said by phone Friday morning. “Add to that the fact that a lot of people are misinformed and they’re getting all their news from social media, from Facebook, and that doesn’t help.”
But the mayor said things have only gotten worse under Trump. The president campaigned in Monessen in 2016 and vowed to bring back steel jobs. Instead, as Trump’s bungled response to the pandemic helped crash the economy, the small city’s ArcelorMittal coking plant laid off 180 workers this summer.
Shorraw also noted that many voters in the Keystone State have already cast early ballots.
“If it were a traditional election cycle, maybe it would break through,” Shorraw said. “But the fact that Election Day is a little over a week away and so many people have already voted ― I think everyone has already dug their heels in.”
Trump’s ongoing push to deregulate the oil and gas industry has actually cost jobs in regions badly hit by the sudden plunge in oil prices at the start of the pandemic. In August, the Trump administration rescinded a rule requiring companies to detect, disclose and plug methane leaks from wells, pipelines and storage facilities.
The rollback was such a radical break from mainstream opinion on greenhouse gas regulations that even oil giants Exxon Mobil and Chevron called on the administration to reverse its decision. This week, the French government blocked a $7 billion deal to buy Texas natural gas on the grounds that the deregulated U.S. industry was now too dirty. And far from damaging employment, keeping the methane rule in place would have created at least 50,000 jobs fixing leaks and manufacturing equipment to control emissions, according to analysis from the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of the largest U.S. labor unions and environmental groups.
“In the middle of massive unemployment in oil and gas communities, Trump finalized a rule that not only sucks for the environment but is actually bad for workers,” Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, said by phone Friday morning.
The country has at least 3 million uncapped oil and gas wells, he said. Decommissioning those wells, which pose major contamination risks to the surrounding water and land, would create 190,000 jobs, a recent study by the nonpartisan Political Economy Research Institute found.
“Is the Trump administration acting on that? Absolutely not,” Walsh said. “Does Biden have a plan for capping those wells and creating jobs in oil and gas communities? Yes, he does.”
“If it were a traditional election cycle, maybe it would break through. But the fact that Election Day is a little over a week away and so many people have already voted ― I think everyone has already dug their heels in.””
Cleaning up the energy industry is a popular idea. Sixty-three percent of likely voters support “putting workers from extractive industries to work remediating abandoned oil and gas wells,” the left-leaning think tank Data for Progress found in a survey published last month. Fifty-five percent support ending government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, which Biden has pledged to do.
Last year, the Pew Research Center found that 67% of adults think the federal government is doing too little to combat the effects of climate change. A New York Times/Siena College poll last week found that 66% of likely voters support Biden’s clean-energy plan.
“Investment in any energy construction will only be made better by union workers building these projects safely and professionally,” Frank Mahoney, spokesman for the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters, said by email Friday morning. “We are ready for investment now and investment made due to transitions in the energy industry.” Mahoney’s union represents construction workers in Pennsylvania’s energy sector.
On Friday morning, Biden seemed to signal where he wanted the industry to go by endorsing Mike Siegel, a Green New Dealer in a tight race to unseat Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) in a district that stretches from the suburbs of Houston to the suburbs of Austin. Siegel has wooed unions representing workers in the state’s storied oil industry to support his plan to transition away from fossil fuels.
“I look around at my union brothers and sisters, and every day I see jobs being obliterated, with no backup plan for us to transition to something better,” Ryan Pollock, a Texas fossil fuel industry worker backing Siegel’s run, said in a viral campaign ad released last week. “This election is about sending one of our own to bring our vision of a Green New Deal to Congress,” he said, “and to bring back good union jobs so we can build a more stable future for ourselves and our loved ones.”
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