Both President Donald Trump and a small army of TV talking heads were on full alert at Thursday night’s debate for a Joe Biden “gaffe” that could change the dynamic of an election that the incumbent seems to be losing by a large margin. And when the Democratic nominee said near the end of the 95-minute session that a Biden administration would “transition from the oil industry” while fighting climate change, Trump and the pundits pounced.
An unusually animated Trump claimed that “basically what he’s saying is he’s going to destroy the oil industry. Will you remember that Texas? Will you remember that Pennsylvania? Oklahoma? Ohio?” That was echoed to a great degree by political analysts who particularly focused on how that comment and efforts by Team Trump to (falsely) claim that Biden will ban fracking will play here in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. Politico, for example, called it “an oil slip” and raced to get quotes from pro-fracking Democrats in Congress.
But watching the contest from my suburban neighborhood just west of Philadelphia that’s awash in Biden-Harris yard signs, I had to wonder if these pundits and even the president, in his never-ending tour of the Keystone State’s midsize airports, have even been to the real Pennsylvania — and I don’t mean the grease-splattered Formica of a rusty diner in rural corners of the state that have been shrinking since the release of “The Deer Hunter.”
No, I’m talking about a place like Chester County — 40 minutes west of Philly, where the only thing that has finally slowed decades of exurban growth is finally running out of faded diners to bulldoze for endless, sprawling condo complexes, and where many of those new energy-efficient windows boast signs in opposition to the giant fracked-natural gas pipeline that was rammed through their communities by an offshoot of Big Oil giant Sunoco.
It’s a place that was reliably Republican going pretty much back to the Civil War, until gradually it was wasn’t — carried by Hillary Clinton over Trump by about 25,000 votes in 2016, with pro-environmental Democrats increasingly flipping once-solid GOP seats on township boards and in the state legislature. That’s forced the remaining Republicans to scramble and prove they stood up to the Mariner East pipeline as it tore through their expensive real estate, all so that smelly natural gas fracked in rural counties could enrich oil giants shipping it to overseas markets.
There’s a weird kind of magnet force that draws journalists to look for laid-off gas workers or struggling small barkeepers in quaint rural burgs while ignoring the densely populated, un-quaint suburbs that are voting for politicians like Chester County state Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, who made opposition to the Mariner East pipeline the centerpiece of her 2018 upset win and who recently told a journalist that “the pipeline project is an example of how our constitutional rights, like health and safety, have been chipped away.”
No wonder, then, that the conventional wisdom is so wrong, and so I’m going to state clearly what the TV pundits refuse to grasp — perhaps, to quote the great Upton Sinclair, because “his salary depends on not understanding it.”
A majority of Pennsylvanians oppose fracking. Period, full stop.
A recent CBS statewide poll, taken in August, found that 52% of commonwealth residents oppose fracking — the modern drilling practice that uses high-pressure water to blast out oil or (for the most part in Pennsylvania) natural gas that’s trapped deep in rock formations like the Marcellus shale bed. And that wasn’t a fluke. Back in January, a Franklin and Marshall College poll found that 48% of Pennsylvanians backed a straight-up ban on fracking — a more radical step than even Biden or many establishment Democrats are willing to take right now — while only 39% opposed such a move. And that survey was taken before the latest summer onslaught of West Coast wildfires and Gulf Coast hurricanes reminded folks that climate change — heavily caused by pollution from fossil fuels — is already wreaking widespread havoc.
Indeed, widen your lens and you’ll see that most voters across America don’t find Biden’s comments about transitioning away from oil as radical, but as reality in the face of climate change and rapid advances in cleaner energy such as wind and solar. A Politico/Morning Consult poll taken right after the Oct. 22 debate found an overwhelming 57% of Americans — even 41% of Republicans — strongly or somewhat support transitioning from oil to renewable energy. Biden’s much-discussed remark was in fact what the politics geeks call “a Kinsley gaffe,” when a comment isn’t a mistake at all but a possibly uncomfortable truth. In this case, though, it’s only uncomfortable because of journalists whose heads are still buried in the long gas lines of the 1970s.
I guess that’s why when I sat down to write this column with CNN on low volume, they were “covering” the Pennsylvania fracking issue with a report from the Western Pa. community of Burgettstown, interviewing a laid-off natural gas project manager and the tearful owner of a bar called T’s Locker Room, bemoaning the lost customers with their gas-soaked paychecks. But even in a place like this the truth is more nuanced. CNN didn’t talk to the workers in a Burgettstown health clinic who were frequently run out by noxious fumes at the height of the boom in 2012.
It’s certainly true that a few million Pennsylvanians are bedrock supporters of fracking — the majority are couch-sitters whose entire knowledge of the industry comes from Trump rallies and Fox News, but some are union members or folks like the Burgettstown tavern owner who did benefit economically for a time from fracking or related projects like Shell’s now-stupid-looking $6 billion investment in a Beaver County plastics plant. These workers are entitled to something — not Fantasyland promises but help finding jobs in growing fields like clean energy and not in an industry that is clearly dying, no matter who wins the presidency next month.
Even with the zealously pro-fossil fuel Trump in the White House, undoing commonsense environmental rules as quickly as he can sign the new paperwork, the oil and natural gas industries have laid off 107,000 U.S. workers this year, the most ever. That’s partly because even Big Oil icons like Shell and BP are more committed to achieving net-zero emissions in the near future than Donald Trump is. That U.S. fracked gas that caused Sunoco to rip up suburban Philadelphia neighborhoods for its new pipeline? Developed nations like those in Europe don’t want it. The French government may have just killed a massive liquefied natural gas plant slated for Texas because of its concerns over climate change.
Indeed, my big frustration with Joe Biden is not that he speaks of transitioning away from oil and touts policies to speed the end of carbon pollution, but because his 20th-century political instincts muddle that message. Many days, the Democrat spends more time insisting he won’t ban fracking than he talks about what he’ll do to boost wind and solar. Even Thursday, he rushed out a statement — presumably with the nattering nabobs of cable negativity ringing in his ears — that he wants to transition out of oil “subsidies,” not oil itself.
Still, what Biden is peddling is a lot closer to the truth than Trump’s phony promises that ultimately did nothing to save the doomed coal industry in 2016 and wouldn’t prevent oil from suffering a similar fate over the 2020s — even if he is miraculously reelected. On Saturday, Biden nailed it when he told a podcast interviewer that climate change is “the number one issue facing humanity. And it’s the number one issue for me.”
It’s certainly a huge issue for what we should call the “silent majority” of Pennsylvanians, who hope for a future when our rural interstates are lined with wind farms and solar panels and not fracking rigs that smell like nail polish, when our tax subsidies don’t go toward the purveyors of the world’s plastic gunk heap, and who don’t like seeing their property values yanked down for a pipeline filled with potentially explosive gas that the world no longer wants. That’s the Pennsylvania I know, and if you don’t see it now, you probably will when the votes are finally tallied next month.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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