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US ELECTIONS: Eying Pennsylvania, Trump officials pound on energy themes


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Washington — The Trump administration is hoping that a pro-drilling message will give it an edge in the tight race for Pennsylvania votes, with top officials visiting the state and campaign surrogates pouncing on Democratic challenger Joe Biden's comments about transitioning away from oil.

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It remains to be seen how effective this strategy will be in the key battleground state with a sharp rural-urban divide, where the natural gas drilling boom has fueled a strong economy in some counties while city residents are likely more concerned with climate change.

Pennsylvania is the second top gas-producing state in the US, after Texas, but its oil production barely registers. It pumped 19.8 Bcf/d of gas and 12,000 b/d of oil in July, according to the latest Energy Information Administration data.

ClearView Energy Partners has said the state's Electoral College heft could potentially determine the election outcome and "messaging on fracking could potentially make a small but crucial difference."

Still, G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, cautioned that natural gas is not the biggest problem in Pennsylvania.

"We have a big state and natural gas is confined in a couple of areas, out in the southwest and up along the Appalachian chain of mountains," Madonna said in an interview Oct. 28. "Once you get outside that area, ... it's not overly relevant in their daily lives," he said. Rather, he said, COVID-19 is cited as the most important problem, followed by the economy, jobs, and personal finances.

The latest Pennsylvania polls showed Biden with a slight lead at 50% and Trump at 44.9%, according to FiveThirtyEight polling averages as of Oct. 29.

Post-debate buzz

While Biden has repeatedly assured that he will not ban hydraulic fracturing, the Trump campaign has jumped on Biden's statement in the last presidential debate that he does intend to "transition from the oil industry." Biden has embraced ambitious climate targets, including achieving net-zero CO2 emissions in the US power sector by 2035 and economy wide by 2050.

Since the debate, Trump has hit hard on the theme, in rallies and on Twitter and campaign ads, that Biden is a threat to oil and gas sector jobs. A Trump-allied super PAC America First Action also launched ads asserting Biden's climate policies could cost 600,000 jobs in the state.

Energy Secretary Dan Brouilllette toured a Marcellus Shale natural gas well outside of Pittsburgh Oct. 27, and Oct. 28 held a roundtable discussion with regional energy and labor leaders.

"The @realDonaldTrump Admin is committed to preserving these jobs and helping provide the resources needed to keep our workforce strong," he said on Twitter.

While he stopped short of commenting directly on Biden's approach, when questioned during a Fox News appearance from Pennsylvania, he offered a warning about policymakers in Washington who want to eliminate fossil fuels.

"When they say things like that, when they say they want to eliminate oil, when they say they want to eliminate gas, a word to the wise, believe them. ... The elimination of 19 million jobs during a pandemic would be devastating."

Biden's timeline for phasing out fossil fuels appears more gradual, based on his campaign targets and support for carbon capture and storage, allowing natural gas to remain part of the fuel mix.

Also appearing at events in Pennsylvania, some held virtually, were Assistant Secretary for Energy Steve Winberg, and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Neil Chatterjee, slated to speak at a Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry conference.

EPA officials

Jonathan Brighbill, a top official in DOJ's environmental division, on Oct. 28 reviewed the Trump administration's regulatory changes during the Chamber event, including repealing the Clean Power Plan, issuing of new guidelines to cut emissions from existing coal-fired power plants, rolling back vehicle fuel efficiency targets, streamlining the National Environmental Policy Act, among others.

Beyond drilling regulations, Pennsylvania also plays a key role in the Washington debate over the federal biofuel mandate. The owners and workers of Philadelphia-area refineries have argued for years that the policy was threatening to put them out of business, although the full picture is more complex and also hinges on changes in US oil production since the crude export boom.

On Oct. 15, EPA chief Wheeler visited the site of the closed Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery to tout a cleanup project and then visited Monroe Energy's 190,000 b/d refinery in Trainer to announce a final streamlining of national fuel regulations that take effect in January.

"EPA's commonsense regulatory reforms will help refiners like Monroe Energy improve environmental outcomes and protect jobs," he said.