Ohio: Perennial battleground at an energy crossroad

Source: Dylan Brown, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, October 7, 2016

Fourth in a series.

Ohio is always at the epicenter of any presidential campaign, but the swing state is also at an energy crossroads with new industries rising, old ones suffering and jobs dominating the debate over who will be the next president.

The candidate who wins Ohio has reached the White House in every election since 1964, but the 2016 race appears to be basically a dead heat. Both Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton have already spent a lot of time in the Buckeye State, weighing in on issues ranging from the global on climate change to the local with the collapse of coal mining in southeastern Ohio.

Energy policy

Ohio is seeing a flurry of energy development across all sectors. Gov. John Kasich (R) rolled back regulations as natural gas has soared, but despite the fact that the Republican-controlled state Legislature abandoned renewable targets, wind and solar are surging, as well.

“Clean energy is a lot about common sense,” said Heather Taylor-Miesle, executive director of the Ohio Environmental Council.

Taylor-Miesle, who formerly led the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, said old enemies like coal companies are increasingly coming to the table to discuss a diversified energy portfolio.

“This has nothing to do with regulation,” she said. “The market is moving this way.”

Clinton has pledged that renewables will produce a third of U.S. electricity by 2027 and to implement President Obama’s emissions-cutting Clean Power Plan to fight climate change.

Even 72 percent of Republicans and conservative independents surveyed for a recent Ohio Conservative Energy Forum poll said they would advise any GOP candidate to support energy efficiency and renewable energy policies.

“We don’t want industries eliminated either, though,” said Ohio Coal Association President Christian Palich.

Coal still generates 60 percent of Ohio’s electricity.

“People want a real all-of-the-above energy strategy that includes coal and oil and gas and renewables because they all can fit in somewhere in the portfolio,” he said.

Benjamin Bates, a communications professor at Ohio University, which is in one of the poorest counties in southeastern Ohio, said outside of college towns, climate concerns are trumped by jobs, especially in the Rust Belt rural areas still reeling decades after losing steel mills and coal mines.

“When you’re not one of those educated elites and you’re looking at your everyday life, global climate change, even if you accept that it exists, is secondary to the immediate need to feed your family and pay your mortgage,” he said.

Promising to be “the greatest jobs-producing president that God ever created,” Trump has panned renewables and promised to unleash oil, gas and coal.

Toxic algae

A massive algae bloom in Lake Erie in 2014 left 500,000 people in Toledo without drinking water for 48 hours, and green microorganisms choked 650 miles of the Ohio River (Greenwire, Aug. 4, 2014). The issue is now cutting through political partisanship.

“All throughout the state our lakes and our rivers are just full of this stuff, and if you want to win Ohio … you’ve got to be willing to engage on this,” Taylor-Miesle said.

Last week, both the Clinton and Trump campaigns sent surrogates to the Great Lakes Restoration Conference.

Drinking water and Lake Erie’s role in Ohio’s economy brought them to the small town of Sandusky, Taylor-Miesle said, despite it being a closed gathering of environmental groups with little campaign cash.

Mike Budzik, former chief of the Ohio Division of Wildlife, said Trump’s sons’ interest in fishing and camping put the issue on the candidate’s radar.

“The problem wasn’t created overnight, and it won’t go away overnight,” Budzik said, calling for more local input, according to WBFO.

Former Obama administration Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes promised Clinton would also work with farmers and local residents, but blasted Trump’s stance on climate change.

“You cannot close your eyes to the science and to climate change and be serious about protecting the Great Lakes,” he said.

Natural gas

Ohio is shooting up in the rankings of natural gas states. Six new gas-fired power plants were built this year after production spiked by 41 percent from 2014 to 2015.

While the booming Marcellus Shale covers only the easternmost counties, development is expanding into the Utica Shale that blankets everything from Cleveland to Columbus.

But Taylor-Miesle said more residents than ever have questions about methane and earthquakes linked to hydraulic fracturing.

Her group is engaging with natural gas companies but wondering “if we’re going to start duking it out.”

Bates said natural gas is broadly seen as a boon. Out-of-work residents readily accept “fracking” royalties. “This is a source of income for an extremely economically deprived region.”

On her website, Clinton says American natural gas “can play an important role in the transition to a clean energy economy.”

“By putting in place new safeguards and raising labor standards, Clinton will ensure safe and responsible natural gas production as we move towards a clean energy future,” the platform states.

Meanwhile, at a recent shale gas industry conference in Pittsburgh last week, Trump promised to “unleash massive wealth for American workers and families.”

“Fracking will lead to American energy independence,” he wrote recently on Twitter. “With price of natural gas continuing to drop, we can be at a tremendous advantage.”

Coal

Trump at the same time is promising to put coal miners back to work after thousands were laid off in recent years, mainly due to competition from natural gas.

In Appalachia, Obama administration regulations get most of the blame for coal’s downturn. Drive past any parking lot near his university, Bates said, and back windows of pickup trucks are plastered with signs blasting Obama’s “war on coal” and hailing that “Trump digs coal.”

“There’s a lot of investment in the region in the idea that the coal and other related industries are under attack in Washington,” Bates said.

He added: “It could definitely swing them one way or another on the candidates.”

Coal is mined in just 20 of Ohio’s 88 counties, but Palich, a native of southern Ohio, said it’s helping Trump turn once solidly blue, union-minded counties red.

Clinton didn’t do herself any favors in Columbus earlier this year when she said she was going to put coal “out of business” (E&E Daily, Sept. 16). She apologized later, arguing she was trying to explain her $30 billion plan to help places like southeastern Ohio transition to clean energy jobs.

“People say, ‘Look at where I live,'” Bates said. “We don’t have wind all the time, we don’t have sun all the time, but we always have coal. And so they don’t see it as a viable replacement industry.”

Clinton’s plan will take decades, he said, while “Trump’s talking about your next paycheck.”

Poll vault

No Republican has ever been elected president without winning Ohio. Obama won the state in the last two presidential elections, but Ohio voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. It is, in some ways, the “swingiest” of swing states. The three most recent presidential polls in the Buckeye State:

Monmouth University: Clinton 44 percent, Trump 42 percent. Poll of 405 likely voters taken Saturday to Tuesday, with a 4.9-point margin of error.

Quinnipiac University: Trump 49 percent, Clinton 46 percent. Poll of 497 voters taken Sept. 27 to Sunday, with a 4.4-point margin of error.

Breitbart/Gravis: Trump 43 percent, Clinton 42 percent. Poll of 850 registered voters taken Sept. 22-23, with a 3.4-point margin of error.

Down-ballot races

The race between first-term Sen. Rob Portman (R) and former Gov. Ted Strickland (D) was once seen as one of the marquee contests of the 2016 election cycle — and a key to Democrats’ fortunes as they look to recapture control of the Senate. But no longer. Portman has run an almost flawless campaign, while Strickland’s has often seemed lackluster. While the end result could still be close — and could still be influenced by what happens at the top of the ballot — Portman undeniably has the advantage right now. A poll released yesterday showed him with a 17-point lead (E&ENews PM, Oct. 5).

Incredibly, in a state that is a perennial battleground on the presidential level, none of Ohio’s 16 House races is considered competitive this cycle — a testament to the gerrymandered district lines engineered by the Republican Legislature. The GOP holds a 12-4 advantage in the state’s House delegation. Every incumbent is running again, including newly elected Rep. Warren Davidson (R) — who took over earlier this year for former House Speaker John Boehner (R) — meaning the delegation will remain the same in the next Congress.

Reporter Josh Kurtz contributed.

Tomorrow: A look at North Carolina.