Biden’s oil ‘transition’ comment may not be as damaging as Trump hopes

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Trump and other Republicans are trying to turn Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s comment during last week’s debate about a “transition from the oil industry” into a game-changing gaffe — akin to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 promise to “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” The president hammered home that point while campaigning in Pennsylvania, a crucial swing state where fracking is a significant employer.

“Biden’s plan is an economic death sentence for Pennsylvania’s energy sector,” he told a crowd in Allentown on Monday.

By dinging Biden over oil, Trump is returning to his playbook in 2016, when he bashed Clinton over coal. But times have changed.

Although Biden’s answer at the debate may have been inartfully put, it’s not inconsistent with his overall plan for tackling climate change that he has been trumpeting for months. As we noted on Friday, Biden’s goal of net-zero greenhouse gas contributions by 2050 cannot be achieved without significantly curtailing the burning of oil and gas. Indeed, his proposal does not call for a ban on fossil fuels but does include a major subsidy for consumers to buy electric vehicles and get rid of cars that rely exclusively on petroleum-based fuels.

“It’s not nearly as big of a gaffe” as Clinton’s, said Frank Maisano, an energy policy expert at Bracewell, a law and lobbying firm that represents energy firms. “It will have less of an impact on Biden.”

There are lots of potential reasons why.

Any effect Biden’s comments will have on voters in Pennsylvania and other swing states is coming late.

The final debate was only 12 days before the end of voting. Clinton’s comments about the decline of the coal-fired power sector, by contrast, had a lot more time to sink in — coming eight months before November 2016.

And unlike four years ago, the coronavirus pandemic has prompted millions more Americans to vote early, taking the punch out of any controversy either candidate tries to spin up late in October.

What’s more, coal simply has more cultural cache in the Midwest than oil does.

While generations in Appalachia have worked in coal mines, fracking arrived in the region just a little more than a decade ago.

“Coal has more symbolic resonance in swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio,” said Paul Bledsoe, a strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute and a climate adviser during Bill Clinton’s presidency who is backing Biden.

Texas, where Democrats have tried to make inroads for years, may be a different story.

Houston is the de facto capital of the U.S. petroleum industry. And oil and gas is drilled from geological formations across the state — not just in one corner of it, like it is from the Marcellus Shale in western Pennsylvania.

In 2018, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) edged out a charismatic and well-funded opponent in Beto O’Rourke in part by dinging the Democrat over once being open to the idea of a $10-per-barrel federal tax on oil. In an echo of Trump today, Cruz’s closing message that October was this: “For anyone in the oil and gas industry, you would have to be out of your mind to vote for Beto O’Rourke.”

Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based political consultant who has worked for both Republican politicians and energy companies, thinks Cruz’s decision to elevate oil as an issue helped him win in Texas. “Once the race got away from personality and back on issues,” he said, “that’s how Cruz won.”

Biden, though, has many paths to winning the White House without having to nab the Lone Star State. His repeated promises not to ban fracking are aimed mostly at voters in Pennsylvania, where union leaders have largely backed Biden and show no sign of changing their minds after Biden’s debate performance.

“We don’t view this as anything more than he misspoke,” said Russ Breckenridge, senior political adviser for the United Association of Union Plumbers and Pipefitters, which endorsed Biden and has about 15,000 members in Pennsylvania.

Trump’s attacks may resonate less after four years in office.

Trump tweeted that Biden will “ABOLISH the entire U.S. Oil Industry.” But the oil sector already isn’t doing that well under Trump.

The viral outbreak has destroyed demand for oil as Americans drive and fly less, leading to tens of thousands of layoffs and dozens of companies declaring bankruptcy.

But the long-term outlook for the oil sector is starting to change, too. Companies are under pressure from politicians around the world to curtail climate-warming emissions from their products and operations. And investors are pouring money into Tesla with the expectation that electric vehicles will continue to penetrate the auto market.

Trump’s effort to hit Biden over energy policy is also undermined by Trump’s poor record on coal. Cheap gas and government-supported renewables continued to eat into the coal sector’s share of power production through his four years in office, despite the administration’s effort to prop up coal use by rolling back regulations.

In March 2016, Clinton talked about “coal miners” losing their jobs as part of a longer answer about helping blue-collar workers. “We’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people,” Clinton continued. “Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories.”

Americans actually like Biden’s climate plan.

The country is broadly concerned about the irreversible harm to the planet unchecked emissions will cause. Two-thirds of likely voters support the vice president’s $2 trillion climate proposal, according to a poll this month from the New York Times and Siena College.

Trump, meanwhile, has no comprehensive plan for curtailing global warming, often dismissing the scientific consensus that humans are contributing to the problem.

Biden is trying to sell his $2 trillion climate proposal as a job creation plan.

“That’s what he was trying to articulate, but he didn’t do it,” Bledsoe said.

Yet unlike Clinton’s “coal miners” comment, Biden didn’t mention workers specifically — just that there would be a move away from burning oil-based products.

“He wasn’t that stupid,” Mackowiak said of Biden. “But the inference is the same.”