The U.S. presidential election is still far away, but Pennsylvania has already emerged as ground zero. It’s where Vice President Joe Biden announced his bid for the Democratic nomination and is one of the states President Donald Trump won by a razor-thin margin in 2016. Pennsylvania, along with Michigan and Wisconsin, will be pivotal in handing or denying Trump a reelection victory.
With more than 20 Democrat candidates in the running, it’s anyone’s guess who will emerge victorious, but one thing’s for sure: to win over the Pennsylvania shale region, Democrats will have to strike a balance between clean energy policies and supporting natural gas.
“Within our state, we have the second largest natural gas producer in the U.S.,” said Daniel Weaver, president and executive director of the Pennsylvania Oil & Gas Association, the state’s oldest and largest trade association. “[Candidates] have to walk a fine line as to how they project themselves. Are you someone who sees natural gas as part of the solution not part of the problem?”
And after years of restrictive policies by the Obama Administration, the energy industry welcomed the election of Trump. He has followed through on his promises to the natural gas industry, recently signing into law two executive orders aimed at speeding up the construction of pipelines.
Democrats in Different Camps Regarding Environment
It will be months before the Democrat candidate is chosen, but the group is already splintering into camps when it comes to energy policies.
There’s the extreme wing that wants to see the end to the natural gas and oil industries. Senator Bernie Sanders is the most high-profile candidate firmly in that camp. If the Vermont Senator wins the 2020 election it could be devastating for the Marcellus shale region and the local economy. Sanders wants to ban fracking and the construction of new fossil fuel plants. He’s also calling for a ban on fossil fuel leases on public land and the end to exports of coal, natural gas and oil.
“Senator Sander is more ‘keep it in the ground,’ which in my view, is the most extreme,” said Terrance Fitzpatrick, president and chief executive of the Energy Association of Pennsylvania, a trade group that represents natural gas companies in the state. “President Obama was generally supportive of gas development. I certainly hope the philosophy prevails.”
Then there’s where most candidates fall: backing the Green New Deal but still supporting the energy industry. The Green New Deal is a sweeping climate change plan that has the backing of a growing number of Democrats.
Current Democratic frontrunner Biden falls in this camp. He’s taking an aggressive approach to fight climate change, recently announcing his plan that aims to cut greenhouse gases to zero by 2050. It relies partly on “enforcement mechanisms” placed on industry and trade penalties on countries that run afoul of climate commitments.
Biden isn’t throwing in the towel on the fossil fuels industry altogether, although his policies would reinstate methane pollution limits for gas and oil wells. His plan calls for the government to invest in a technology known as carbon sequestration, which takes greenhouse gases emitted into the air and buries them. Environmentalists aren’t a fan, arguing the process only serves to slow down the move away from fossil fuels. But it’s the more middle of the road policies like that, that will appeal to voters in the Marcellus Shale region.
Senate Matters, Too
The reelection of President Trump is the best outcome for the shale industry in Pennsylvania, but even if he wins it might not matter. It’s the makeup of Congress after the 2020 election that will have the biggest impact. There are 34 seats up for grabs, and Democrats need three or four to gain control of the Senate.
“If he’s elected and we still have a Democrat House and a Republican Senate we might get more of the same,” said Fitzpatrick, a supporter of President Trump’s energy policies. “If a Democrat is elected…depending on what happens with Congress, very big changes could be coming on the energy front.”
Even if a Democrat wins, the industry may not get caught as flat-footed as many think. Fitzpatrick said there’s an acceptance that certain trends will continue regardless of who wins one political election. He pointed to legislation on the part of the Obama Administration around clean power plants and the Paris Accord. Trump scuttled both but natural gas companies are still following the guidelines laid out in those initiatives.
“The industry is looking longer term and are hedging their bets. They know they need to get cleaner regardless of the short-term trends,” he said. “Who is in charge only affects the speed at which things are done.”
Donna Fuscaldo is veteran reporter covering technology, the environment and policy for national publications including Forbes, FoxBusiness.com, Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal.
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