With less than a week to the election and polls showing a tight race in energy-rich Pennsylvania, the Trump administration is preparing to study the economic effects of hydraulic fracturing, according to Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette.
Brouillette – who Tuesday toured a fracking site in Pennsylvania – told Fox News yesterday that the technology has created the “largest increase” in natural gas production across the world and that his department would look at the “exact economic impact if we took that away.”
He responded to a question about a Wall Street Journal report Tuesday that Trump was considering an executive order to mandate an analysis, based on comments from senior administration officials who said the move was aimed at underscoring Trump’s support for the energy industry.
Brouillette said he wouldn’t comment on the order “because they’re still in the process of developing it” but added the administration wants to study the impact of the technology on the U.S. economy.
The White House said it would not comment on potential pending executive action, but spokesman Judd Deere said that “since taking office, President Trump has prioritized all forms of domestic energy production, which has led to America becoming energy independent.”
Trump has made his support for fracking and the fossil fuel industry a central plank of his campaign, repeatedly accusing Democratic nominee Joe Biden of wanting to impose a total ban on fracking.
Biden “wants to abolish a thing called American energy,” Trump told a rally yesterday in Arizona. “There’ll be no fracking.”
Biden has muddied his message at times but insisted in a campaign appearance in Pennsylvania over the weekend that he would not ban fracking “in Pennsylvania or anywhere else.” He has said he would ban all new fossil fuel drilling permits on federal land, as part of his plan to tackle climate change. He has pledged the plan would create millions of jobs.
Brouillette, who cited a December 2019 U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey finding the U.S. would lose 19 million jobs if it banned fracking, said the department is “very, very interested in it. We want to know more about it. And we’ll be studying it at the U.S. Department of Energy.”
He said he couldn’t comment on Biden’s remarks but added, “I can tell you there are policymakers in D.C. who want to eliminate not only this technology, but the entire fossil fuel industry.”
Biden’s campaign criticized Trump for focusing on fracking amid a pandemic that continues to spread.
“President Trump could be taking action right now to get the virus under control and create good jobs for Pennsylvanians, but instead he wants to commission a study – on the day of Pennsylvania’s highest spike in cases,” said Biden spokesman Matt Hill. He added that Trump was “playing politics with presidential paper as if it will distract from his failures or change the fact that Joe Biden will always stand up for working families; create millions of good-paying, union jobs; and build back our economy better.”
Trump, who campaigned in 2016 pledging to bring back coal jobs, has championed natural gas even as the fuel has largely displaced coal as a source for U.S. power plants. He held three rallies in Pennsylvania on Monday, telling crowds that Biden is a threat to fracking and the state’s economy. And the campaign announced that he’ll return to the state for three more rallies on Saturday. Recent polls in the state have suggested a tightening race.
But it’s unclear how much Trump’s focus on the issue will sway voters, who are already casting ballots. Opinions of fracking are divided in the state amid concerns over potential environmental hazards from the drilling.
Close elections can turn on a narrow majority, and ClearView Energy Partners LLC wrote in a note to clients this week that the administration “could seek marginal gains from a pro-fracking EO. By our assessment, the gambit could make a difference.”
It said it expects the order to look beyond the oil and gas industry, noting that it characterized Trump’s 2016 appeal to coal miners and steelworkers “as a bid to garner support from those sectors, but also from related and supporting industries peripheral to Pennsylvania’s coal and steel industries.”
A ‘desperate attempt’?
Trump in 2016 defeated Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania by 44,292 votes, a margin of 0.7 percentage point.
ClearView noted that Trump won 28 of the 30 counties that accounted for 99.9% of gas production in 2019.
“The prospect of a fracking EO therefore suggests to us that the Trump campaign may regard those 28 counties, and especially the top nine producers, as essential to holding Pennsylvania in a ‘bring out your base’ election,” ClearView said.
The executive order Trump is mulling may also ask agencies to suggest new policies that could facilitate or expand production, according to the firm.
Any report would likely be months in the making, and a number of industry groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, have already done similar surveys.
The Department of Energy earlier this month released a report that says oil and gas will be a factor for “the foreseeable future” and allow the United States to decrease its dependence on foreign energy.
That report – which the agency said cost $200,000 – found that the domestic oil and natural gas extraction industry supported 896,000 jobs as of the end of 2019, including both direct and indirect jobs, such as service and supply jobs.
A study released in September by the American Petroleum Institute by consulting firm OnLocation Inc. said a ban would increase U.S. reliance on foreign energy and would harm several top energy-producing states, including New Mexico, Wyoming, North Dakota and Texas. The analysis said more than 930,000 jobs could be gone by 2022 if a federal leasing and development ban went into effect (Energywire, Sept. 10).
But industry hailed the call for another study.
“We appreciate the president’s support for hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling – technologies that are responsible for the environmental progress this country has achieved over the last decade,” said Anne Bradbury, CEO of the American Exploration & Production Council, which represents the largest independent oil and natural gas exploration and production companies in the U.S.
Environmentalists panned the move, with Food & Water Action policy director Mitch Jones calling it “just one more desperate attempt by this White House to make fracking into a winning campaign issue.”
Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral college votes make it the most valuable battleground state that proved critical to Trump’s 2016 win, and both campaigns have put considerable time and money into the state.
In addition to Trump’s three stops Monday, first lady Melania Trump marked her return to the campaign trail with a trip Tuesday.
And Brouillette, who has spent much of the past two months in swing states critical to Trump’s reelection, spent Tuesday and yesterday in Pennsylvania, visiting a natural gas well site outside Pittsburgh.
There he told local reporters that production in the state is “important to the nation. We all depend upon the production of this natural gas.”
He also dismissed concerns from critics who fear fracking’s effects on water and air: “There are no credible studies that show fracking harms the environment in a significant way,” he said.
A Harvard University study released earlier this month found elevated levels of radioactive particles in areas close to unconventional oil and gas wells, posing health risks to anybody living and working nearby.
Other research has found that women who live near oil and gas wells are more likely to give birth to preterm babies and that proximity to oil and gas wells can lead to short-term health impacts such as headaches and dizziness.
Those risks have prompted lawmakers in some oil- and gas-producing states to impose buffer zones between wells and homes and schools. However, no states have imposed laws banning drilling activities farther than 2,000 feet (Energywire, Oct. 15).
In addition to Brouillette, DOE Assistant Secretary of Fossil Energy Steven Winberg will participate today in an oil and gas conference in Pennsylvania, and tomorrow he will participate in a town hall hosted by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a group of natural gas companies based in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.
Winberg will “highlight the crucial importance of maintaining a strong domestic oil and gas industry, discuss why fossil fuels remain a key reliable energy source for the foreseeable future, and underscore the importance of Marcellus Shale produced natural gas,” the department said.
Trump’s first Energy secretary, Rick Perry, told reporters earlier this week that he plans to hit the road for the president, campaigning across Pennsylvania by bus Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
On the Democratic side, Doug Emhoff, Sen. Kamala Harris’ husband, campaigned yesterday in the state.
Reporter Carlos Anchondo contributed.
Reprinted from Energywire with the permission of E&E News. Copyright 2020. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at www.eenews.net.