Energy & Environment

Democrats play defense, GOP goes on attack after Biden oil comments

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Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s comment that he would “transition” away from oil made in Thursday night’s presidential debate could compromise the candidate’s carefully laid pitch to voters in Pennsylvania, a key swing state. 

The former vice president quickly sought to clean up the comments, telling reporters Thursday night after the debate that “we’re getting rid of the subsidies for fossil fuels, but we’re not getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time.”

On Friday the Biden campaign said the candidate’s plan does not call for the total elimination of oil and gas.

But the Trump campaign quickly seized on the remarks, saying they capped the best online fundraising day for Trump. Campaign manager Bill Stepien told reporters they would “put the nail in the coffin” for Biden in Pennsylvania, and possibly Ohio and Minnesota. 

Biden and Trump are also locked in a tight race in Texas, a state Democrats have long dreamed of taking but one in which the comments could prove damaging.  

Vice President Pence is campaigning in Ohio and Pennsylvania on Friday, jumping on Biden’s comments at a rally in Swanton, Ohio. 

And less than 24 hours after the debate, the Trump campaign unveiled a new advertisement airing in Pennsylvania that features Biden’s remarks on oil. In the ad, a fracking technician claims that a Biden administration would “end fracking” and be “devastating” to the state. Biden’s climate plan does not call for an end to fracking.

Democrats, including those in oil country, were also seeking to clean up, with some disavowing Biden’s comments and others trying to draw attention to the less controversial parts of his plan like ending tax breaks for the industry.

“I disagree with VP Biden’s statement tonight. Energy is part of the backbone of New Mexico’s economy. We need to work together to promote responsible energy production and stop climate change, not demonize a single industry,” tweeted Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.), who in 2018 won a tight race to fill an open seat previously held by a Republican.  

Biden’s comments at the debate aren’t out of step with what his climate plan calls for. 

His plan aims to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, expanding the reach and reliability of renewable energy to provide an alternative to fossil fuels. He has said that natural gas and other fossil fuels will be needed as part of a transition to renewable energy.

Biden has stopped short of backing proposals from more liberal Democrats on climate change, such as the Green New Deal. 

“The New Green Deal calls for the elimination of all nonrenewable energy by 2030 — you can’t get there. You’re going to need to be able to transition,” he said at a town hall last week, adding that the country would still need to use fossil fuels in the meantime. 

Still, the remarks give new fodder to a Trump campaign that has previously drilled down on fracking but struggled to attack a climate plan viewed favorably by two-thirds of voters. 

Tim Murtaugh, Trump’s communications director, told reporters late Thursday that Biden “accidentally told the truth tonight.” 

“It is impossible to campaign in places such as Pennsylvania and try to be both things at once. You cannot be Joe from Scranton who cares about American workers’ jobs, people who work in the fracking industry, and have AOC writing your climate change policy at the same time,” Murtaugh said, referencing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). 

Biden’s campaign argued Trump’s campaign was taking the remarks out of context.

“It’s not true. He would not get rid of fossil fuels, but he would get rid of the subsidies they receive. And part of his strategy to transition to net-zero emissions is to make significant investments in carbon capture and sequestration,” which could capture emissions from the oil industry, Biden campaign spokesperson Bill Russo said in a statement.

Basil Smikle, a political strategist and lecturer at Columbia University, said Biden’s transition comments could be used by Republicans to hit Biden in key battleground states where he is currently doing well.

“I do think that’s going to be used in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan,” Smikle told The Hill. “He will have to do a lot of work to clean that up in the next couple of days.”

Polling has consistently shown Biden with a lead over Trump in Pennsylvania, though the race remains close.

A Reuters poll that ended Oct. 19 gave Biden 49 percent of the vote to Trump’s 45 percent — hopeful news for the Trump campaign as Biden dropped 2 percentage points from earlier polls.

A Thursday Morning Consult poll showed Biden leading by 1 point in the usually reliable red state of Texas, within the margin of error with a 48 percent to 47 percent result. Another Wednesday Quinnipiac University poll found the two tied.

Bryan Lanza, a former Trump campaign official, said the debate represented a victory for Trump because he was able to coax errors from Biden.

“I think that’s a huge unforced error,” he said of the oil comments.

“If Texas was ever moving purple this moved it right back to red,” Lanza said. “In Pennsylvania, it reinforces the fears that they’ve had about this guy.”

Still, it’s unclear whether the comments, which came less than two weeks before Election Day as voters in many states already cast their ballots, will ultimately have a meaningful impact on a race that has been dominated by the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 220,000 Americans and cratered the U.S. economy. 

Trump has consistently received poor marks for his handling of the pandemic, and Biden has made criticizing the president’s response to the virus a central focus of his campaign. 

Smikle said that, at this stage, Biden’s campaign should be feeling comfortable with the former vice president’s consistent lead in public polling.

“They should be feeling good but not overconfident,” Smikle said. “The consensus among the polls says that they’re in a pretty strong position.”

Still, Republicans expressed confidence that the party could use Biden’s remarks to argue that Democrats would adopt radical policies that could work to turn off independent-minded voters. 

“The former vice president’s general threat to eliminate the oil and gas industry may not ultimately shift huge numbers of undecided voters, at least not on its own. Here’s what will: that policy is part of a larger push by the vice president’s liberal base to enact radical, job-destroying, expensive pieces of legislation like the Green New Deal,” said David Polyansky, a GOP consultant and former chief of staff to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). 

“That signal can shift one or two percent of voters, and change the outcome not only in energy-focused fronts like Texas and Pennsylvania but also every other battleground state,” Polyansky said. 

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bill Stepien Climate change Joe Biden Mike Pence oil Pennsylvania Renewable energy Ted Cruz Texas
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