Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 October 2020

Will fracking power Donald Trump past Joe Biden in Pennsylvania?

US president pitches Democratic rival as an opponent of oil-producing industry that provides much-needed jobs

For Ron Thompson, life is a balance of risks and rewards. His father caught black lung disease from working in coal mine shafts for decades, yet he wants Pennsylvania’s energy sector to expand and create much-needed jobs.

The 51-year-old, who runs an electrical engineering business, mourns the loss of coal, iron and steel jobs in the Keystone State and worries that over-regulating the lucrative "fracking" sector would cost his children their pay cheques.

“We became the number one producer of natural gas and oil in the world under [President Donald] Trump’s policies,” Mr Thompson told The National.

“It’s very important to me that the fracking, oil and gas industry comes back. Because friends of mine, their livelihoods and their families depend on it.”

Ron Thompson, 51, says his children and friends depend on the fracking industry for their livelihoods. James Reinl for The National
Ron Thompson, 51, says his children and friends depend on the fracking industry for their livelihoods. James Reinl for The National

Fracking is a key issue in the November 3 election. Mr Trump, a Republican, says his Democratic rival Joe Biden would outlaw the practice – a largely bogus claim – in his bid to win battleground Pennsylvania and keep the White House.

Four years ago, Mr Trump won a surprise victory in Pennsylvania by a slim 44,000-vote margin – one of three north-eastern rust belt states that turned away from the Democrats under then-candidate Hillary Clinton.

Mr Trump was back in western Pennsylvania this week, where he needs the same blue-collar workers to turn out again on November 3 so he can beat Mr Biden, who is well ahead in statewide and national polls.

“One of the most important issues for Pennsylvania is the survival of your fracking industry,” Mr Trump told thousands of fans at a rally outside Johnstown, in a historical coal-mining area, on Tuesday night.

“Joe Biden has repeatedly pledged to abolish fracking. He’s a liar.”

Fracking — or hydraulic fracturing — involves injecting high-pressure liquid into bedrock to extract oil or gas as it escapes through fissures. The process has opened a years-long oil and gas boom in the US south-west, High Plains and north-east.

Tim Lenhart, 62, right, believes the US should tap its own energy reserves. James Reinl for The National
Tim Lenhart, 62, right, believes the US should tap its own energy reserves. James Reinl for The National

Environmentalists say it comes at a cost. In Pennsylvania, the industry has grown to include more than 10,000 wells, leading to contaminated drinking water, dangerous gas pipelines through suburbs and noisy and polluting oil trucks.

Mr Biden insists that he would not ban fracking, saying he would only halt new gas and oil permits – including fracking – on federal lands. The vast majority of oil and gas does not come from federal lands.

In a televised debate this month, Vice President Mike Pence accused his opponent, Mr Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris, of planning to ban fracking a total of five times. She pointedly refuted each suggestion.

“Joe Biden will not end fracking, he has been very clear about that,” Ms Harris said.

Instead, Mr Biden’s environmental policy calls for spending $2 trillion over four years to insulate more buildings, boost clean energy and eliminate fossil fuel emissions from the power sector by 2035.

Mr Biden’s plan falls short of the Green New Deal proposed by congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other leftist Democrats that calls for drastic cuts to carbon emissions in power stations, transport and farming.

Those policies go down badly in rural Pennsylvania. Mr Thompson worries that the Democratic candidate is in cahoots with the global solar and wind energy firms that stand to profit from the end of hydrocarbons.

“We have the regulations in place to do it cleanly, environmentally safe,” said Mr Thompson. “There’s a great balance between the two, but to just kill it, and to kill the livelihoods and the strength of an economy, would be crazy.”

Tim Lenhart, 62, a former corrections officer from nearby Meyersdale, another former coal-mining town, agreed. Without fracking, the US would import more Middle Eastern fuel, so “why depend on other countries for resources we have right here?”

Supporters listen to US President Donald Trump speak at a Make America Great Again rally in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on October 13, 2020. AFP
Supporters listen to US President Donald Trump speak at a Make America Great Again rally in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on October 13, 2020. AFP

Mr Trump’s pro-fracking message resonates with blue-collar voters in rural Pennsylvania, but polls put him about 6 percentage points behind Mr Biden, who fares better in such big cities as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Nationwide, Mr Biden leads Mr Trump by about 10 percentage points, polling suggests. Close-call races in high-value states like Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio and Georgia are likely to determine who wins next month.

Mr Trump’s upset victory in 2016 came after Mrs Clinton neglected working-class white voters on the campaign trail. Mr Biden, however, courts ordinary Americans and is from Scranton, a Pennsylvania industrial city.

David Masur, the Philadelphia-based director of PennEnvironment, which campaigns against fracking, said Mr Trump was out of step with urban Pennsylvanian voters who see ever more damage from fracking on their doorsteps.

“I empathise with the economic anxiety that's felt in rust belt communities and was decades in the making,” said Mr Masur.

“But Trump is riding this fracking train into the ground, ostracising voters in the populated south-east corner of the state, where people care deeply about the environment.”

Updated: October 15, 2020 08:26 PM

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