Gas export pause could scramble Biden’s chances in Pennsylvania

Democratic Sens. Bob Casey, who is facing reelection this November, and John Fetterman, both argued the pause could hurt their state.

“Sen. Casey and I are very pro-energy, pro-job, pro-union and pro-American security,” Fetterman told POLITICO. “We stand with the president, but on this issue we happen to disagree. I am very clear. Natural gas is necessary right now. It’s a critical part of our nation’s energy stack.”

Republicans — including some who supported Biden over Trump — have said the gas export permit pause shows Biden is out of touch with working Americans.

“He calls himself Union Joe, but this decision to walk away from natural gas exports flies in the face of what he says about working class Americans,” said former Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican who represented central Pennsylvania and endorsed Biden in 2020. “He must not think their support is as valuable as the younger voters he is courting right now.”

U.S. natural gas exports have surged in the past seven years as the fracking boom propelled production of the fuel to record levels. Companies are now shipping liquefied natural gas in tankers carrying more than 12 percent of that annual U.S. output abroad — a figure that is expected to at least double in the next few years as LNG plants that have already received permits come online.

Many Democrats in Congress have expressed concerns that the growing share of gas devoted to exports will raise domestic energy prices, while Republicans have sought to portray the pause as a “ban” on new shipments that hurts the U.S. industry and will slow global climate efforts.

The gas industry has created a split in Pennsylvania, turning some economically depressed communities in the western and northern parts of the state into boomtowns. But the drilling technology is effectively banned in the Delaware River water basin along the state’s northeastern border, where fears about drinking water contamination from wastewater have generated strong opposition.

Democratic Reps. Chris Deluzio and Susan Wild, who represent swing districts in the state and
are top targets for Republicans
looking to keep control of the House, have also told POLITICO they oppose Biden’s decision for how it could impact the 72,000 people that
work in the natural gas industry there

Pennsylvania sealed Biden’s victory in 2020
, pushing him over the top in the Electoral College after he defeated Trump in the state by 80,555 votes, or 1.2 percent. Trump had won the state in 2016 by 44,292 votes, aided in part by
Democrat Hillary Clinton’s remarks
that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Though she went on to add that “we don’t want to forget those people,” her comments cost her support of Democrats in blue-collar union counties around Pittsburgh.

Jeff Nobers, executive director of the Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania, told POLITICO that Biden’s decision to pause gas export approvals risks upsetting voters who played a key role in delivering him to victory in 2020.

Back then, Biden was able to
persuade leaders of fossil fuel-heavy building trade unions in Pennsylvania
that his promised climate agenda — the most aggressive ever for a presidential candidate — wouldn’t harm them. Even so, the president was forced to
explain away some of his own words
after an October 2020 debate with Trump, where Biden said that
“I would transition away from the oil industry

“When you look at what happened last time, he was able to walk back some of the things that were said about banning natural gas. But now there is a four-year record,” said Nobers, whose group represents a coalition of unions representing 60,000 workers and contractors in construction trades, many who work across the natural gas supply chain.

Nobers, a Democrat, voted for Biden in 2020 after backing Trump in 2016, but he said he’s now undecided about 2024 after the president’s action curbing natural gas export permits.

“He certainly hasn’t done anything to promote or facilitate the use of natural gas and it’s continued to be viewed as this evil thing,” Nobers said. He acknowledged that the export permit freeze wouldn’t affect the state’s natural gas output any time soon, but Biden’s “waffling” had him concerned.

Nobers said he is still committed to vote for Casey, in one of the key races that could determine control of the Senate, after being satisfied with his opposition to Biden’s LNG pause.

Casey, who is seen as having a tougher-than-usual re-election race this year, told POLITICO he would try to offset GOP attacks tied to Biden’s gas export permit pause by talking about energy investments that the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure law have enabled in his state.

That includes funding to support new technologies
such as hydrogen
and a
battery factory
tabbed for an economically depressed area near Pittsburgh.

“There’s a potential now to make some positive arguments to a lot of those same communities [that have benefited from natural gas production],” Casey said. “We are already seeing some benefit from that we really didn’t have when I was running in ‘18 and the president was running in 2020.”

In an email, Biden’s campaign noted that natural gas production and employment had both climbed during his term, and that the state’s unemployment rate had fallen by half.

“President Biden promised to create good-paying jobs for Pennsylvanians after Trump crashed our economy, and he’s delivering thousands of union jobs across the state through investments in infrastructure and clean energy. Where Trump failed, President Biden is delivering for Pennsylvanians,” Jack Doyle, the Biden campaign’s Pennsylvania communications director, said in an email.

Green advocates in the urban centers that are heavily Democratic said they saw Biden’s export permit freeze as a net gain for the president’s campaign.

David Masur, executive director of Philadelphia-based advocacy group PennEnvironment, said the freeze would motivate young climate voters around the city and its suburbs.

“The president deserves credit for making a hard decision on something that’s been kicked down the road,” Masur said. “For youth voters it’s one more card in the deck for the president to say ‘I am the biggest climate advocate to ever have been in the White House.’”

And it could boost Biden’s standing with environmental justice areas — the low-income populations and communities of color that have historically suffered disproportionately from industrial pollution.

That includes Chester, a small predominantly black city of 35,000 people on the western bank of the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Wilmington where
an energy company is looking to build a gas export project that could get tied up in Biden’s review

Stefan Roots, the Democratic mayor of Chester, said he was “excited” and “surprised” by the president’s decision, which he said could “practically kill the project” by dissauding investors.

“It’s a huge win for us,” Roots said. “We just don’t need another dirty industry in our city.” That averted pollution is more important than the impact on employment, he said, as few residents are likely to get jobs because the city lacks trained workers and has the lowest performing school system in the state.

But in a potential warning sign for Biden, Roots cautioned the president’s action was unlikely to win over many voters in Chester, which usually draws low turnout.

“Freezing this project in my city will not earn the president a single vote,” Roots said. “It’s not an issue top of mind to most residents here. This is a really poor city with quality of life issues. They are dealing with their day to day.”

Christopher Borick, a professor of political science and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, said Biden’s pause on gas exports may matter on the margins. The narrowly divided state’s voters’ views about fracking and natural gas fall largely along partisan lines: Most of the natural gas-producing regions are rural and Republican-leaning.

According to a 2022 survey conducted by his institute, 67 percent of Republicans said drilling for natural gas would lead to “more benefits” for Pennsylvanians, compared with 28 percent of Democrats and 39 percent of independents.

“This is really a classic example of how Democrats in Pennsylvania have to walk a fine line in terms of their positions on energy and particularly natural gas,” Borick said. “In a state that’s so tightly divided and every little thing matters, how do you maintain a coalition of unions with lots of blue collar workers who have a stake in the natural gas industry, while pleasing a large portion of your Democratic base that’s concerned about environmental matters and climate change?”

producing about one-fifth of U.S. natural gas
, the oil and gas industry contributes only a relatively small share of the state’s gross domestic product — less than 5 percent.

That means it is not as dominant there compared with less economically diverse states such as Wyoming, Alaska or Louisiana, said Kevin Book, managing director of ClearView Energy Partners, a D.C.based research group.

“This is a widely diversified economy,” Book said. “The Biden administration probably judged the under-30 voter cohort is large enough that a small gain there could offset any losses in the labor and industrial constituencies.”

Republicans, though, are confident Biden has made the wrong calculus, and have aggressively portrayed the president’s pause on gas approvals as reflecting the White House’s hostility toward fossil fuels and contrary to U.S. international interests.

“In some ways it has more potency than a fracking ban,” said former Rep. Ryan Costello, referring to unfounded claims made in 2020 that Biden would seek to prohibit the drilling technology.

“Why would he do this when this just benefits Russia and China? This just feeds into the wrong narrative for Biden in cultural and economic ways for voters who are already suspect of him,” said Costello, a centrist Republican who represented the Philadelphia suburbs until 2018.