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Joe Biden’s energy policies are fuelling Donald Trump’s campaign in Pennsylvania

When Donald Trump held a rally in rural Pennsylvania last week, he hit familiar themes: immigration, his legal woes and rising prices. But he got his loudest cheers when he promised to lift Joe Biden’s ban on new natural gas exports, highlighting the unpopularity of the policy in a critical swing state.

The White House’s decision to pause approvals for new liquefied natural gas projects has angered the shale gas industry, a big employer in Pennsylvania. It has also raised concerns among local Democrats, who warn a policy designed to appeal to young climate-conscious voters could harm Biden’s campaign in a state that produces a fifth of America’s natural gas.

“I’m pretty tired of constantly worrying that somebody in Washington DC makes a decision that’s going to impact my family in Fayette county,” said Nick Staffieri, a waste management team leader at EQT Corporation, the largest natural gas producer in the US.

“To see us potentially pause LNG for political purposes, it’s disheartening, really disheartening.”

The electoral importance of Pennsylvania is illustrated by the fact that Biden spent three days in the state this week. On Wednesday he vowed to keep US Steel in American ownership, and called for higher tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminium imports in a bid to shore up support with unions.

Nick Staffieri stands in front of water towers at one of EQT’s natural gas well pads in Washington County, Pennsylvania
Nick Staffieri in front of water towers at one of EQT’s natural gas well pads in Washington County, Pennsylvania © Justin Merriman/FT

Hillary Clinton lost to Trump in Pennsylvania in 2016 by fewer than 45,000 votes, when large numbers of working class voters who traditionally voted Democrat backed the Republican candidate. Biden, who was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, defeated Trump in the state in 2020 by just over 80,000 votes, or about 1 percentage point.

Blue-collar voters will once again play an important role in November, with opinion polls showing Biden with a very slight lead over Trump in the state. And there are signs the pause on LNG approvals and other environmental laws buffeting the gas industry are creating a sour mood among its 72,000 workers in Pennsylvania.

Like many of the tens of thousands of workers in the shale industry, Staffieri has first-hand experience of the boom-bust nature of the sector. In 2020 he and his wife, who also works in the Pennsylvania gas industry, were laid off during the pandemic.

“We went from two very wholesome salaries to zero,” said Staffieri, who has used his salary to upgrade a family farm.

The local economy has since bounced back and the jobless rate of 3.4 per cent is near record lows. But industry and trade union leaders worry the LNG pause risks destabilising the gas industry, which is facing challenges linked to a supply glut that has caused prices to crash to three-year lows.

Producers EQT and Chesapeake are throttling back production and some of the best producing wells in Pennsylvania have been temporarily idled.

Joe Cyran, a supporter of Donald Trump who owns a construction company, has placed campaign signs outside his business near Loretto, Pennsylvania
Joe Cyran, a supporter of Donald Trump who owns a construction company, has placed campaign signs outside his business near Loretto, Pennsylvania © Joe Cyran

“If we are not building energy infrastructure and pipelines, I mean, that definitely has to hurt labour, jobs, pipeliners, construction and union jobs,” said Shawn Steffee, business agent at the Boilermakers Local 154 trade union in Pittsburgh.

Trade unions played an important role in galvanising their members to support Biden in 2020. In return, he has supported pro-union industrial policies that helped them reverse decades of membership decline in Pennsylvania last year.

Union leaders say Biden has done more for their movement than any previous president but warn his policies targeting the gas industry could cause workers to switch allegiance to Trump.

“My members are going to vote with their pocketbook and the economy,” said Steffee.  

Republican politicians in Pennsylvania have seized on the LNG cessation, which resonates with a rural constituency of landowners, gas and coal workers who have overwhelmingly backed Trump in recent presidential elections.

“Energy is a huge opportunity for America and a huge opportunity for Pennsylvania and I think it’s just been mishandled,” said David McCormick, the former Bridgewater boss who is the Republican US Senate candidate in Pennsylvania.

Well heads at one of EQT’s natural gas well pads in Washington County, Pennsylvania
Well heads at one of EQT’s natural gas pads in Washington County, Pennsylvania © Justin Merriman/FT

During a visit to Lackawanna College’s School of Petroleum & Natural Gas in the small town of Tunkhannock near Scranton, McCormick alleged Biden had perpetrated “a war on energy” that has undermined US security.

“EVs and solar are not better for working people,” he said.

Political analysts say the LNG issue and other energy-related matters could play a role in a tight election in Pennsylvania by picking off some swing voters working in these industries. But a host of other contentious issues such as abortion, rising prices and immigration would matter more broadly to the state’s electorate, they say.

Matthew Kerbel, professor of political science at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, said one of the unusual factors in this election is that the challenger to Biden was a former president rather than an untested rival. An incumbent president typically runs on their record and voters make their judgment on that, but this time it might be different given Trump’s record and legal difficulties, he said.

“If this election turns into a referendum on Trump, as opposed to a referendum on Biden? I think it’s going to be a very big factor,” said Kerbel.

In rural Pennsylvania support for Trump runs deep with many homeowners displaying campaign signs in the front gardens and bumper stickers on their cars.

“Trump was honest, he might have been vocal but he was very honest,” said Joe Cyran, a 73-year-old builder who has erected pro-Trump signs outside his business. “The communist left is persecuting Trump.”

But Pennsylvania’s main cities vote mainly Democrat and in Scranton some Biden supporters are mobilising in an effort to keep Trump out.

“When I heard Biden was coming to Scranton I volunteered to sign people in for his speech,” said Sarah Cruz, a sales associate at Boscov’s department store.

She said she always liked Biden because of his moral character and didn’t want to live under a second Trump presidency, adding the “soul of our nation is at stake”.

“Trump put into place three Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe vs Wade. I mean, he had children separated from their parents and put into cages like animals . . . his supporters really believe the election was stolen,” she said.

In Pittsburgh, another Democratic stronghold, some young voters appear disenchanted with Biden and Trump, citing their old age and policy differences.

“The way Biden and his administration is dealing with the Palestine/Israel conflict, I think that’s going to change a lot of young voters,” said Isabelle, a student at the University of Pittsburgh who did not want to provide her full name.

“I think with this election it’s almost choosing the better of the two evils. I will vote for Biden and I hope he carries through with plans for student debt relief.”

Jim Lee, president of Susquehanna Polling and Research, said focus groups showed that many Biden voters were voting against Trump, rather than for Biden, whereas Trump voters were very enthusiastic about his candidacy.

“They don’t like Trump . . . they hate him,” he said.

“Trump’s challenge will be to expand beyond his base and at the moment he just isn’t able to do this.”

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