WASHINGTON: During the Democratic presidential primaries, James Kunz, who leads the operating engineers union in western Pennsylvania, worried the party would choose a nominee determined to cripple the natural gas industry that has boosted the livelihoods of thousands of fellow Pennsylvanians.
And in recent weeks, President Donald Trump has repeatedly told voters like Kunz that Democrats had done just that. Joe Biden will ban the extraction of gas through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, he and Vice President Mike Pence have said, over and over — nevermind that the former vice president has said otherwise.
Kunz isn’t buying it.
“I’m very comfortable endorsing Joe Biden,” Kunz said.
Lagging in the polls and looking to regain the white, working-class dominance that narrowly delivered the Upper Midwest to him in 2016, Trump has made fracking something of a last gasp. His campaign has taken advantage of confusing statements that Biden has made about fracking despite his consistent position that he will not work to ban the practice.
Pence, in his debate with Sen. Kamala Harris, lobbed the accusation that a Biden administration would ban fracking no fewer than five times.
But it does not appear to be gaining enough traction where Trump needs it most, in Pennsylvania. Recent polls show Biden with a 13-percentage point lead in perhaps the most important swing state.
Kunz is one of more than a half-dozen western Pennsylvania union officials and members with the steamfitters union, the builder’s guild and construction union who had told The New York Times early this year they would not be able to tell their members to vote for a candidate who supported a fracking ban, but who in recent weeks have sided with Biden. Each of them had expressed concern that the Democratic Party had turned hostile to the fossil fuel industry as they pressed for the development of renewable energy sources like solar and wind power.
But in interviews this month, they said they took Biden at his word that addressing climate change would not amount to an attack on the natural gas industry.
“The day they can feed the United States economy energy wise with solar and wind, then thank God for it,” said Kenneth Broadbent, business manager of the Steamfitters Local 449 who has endorsed Biden. “But they’re going to need natural gas, and Biden understands that.”
The alliance between western Pennsylvania workers and liberal Democrats remains uneasy.
“Fracking is bad, actually,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, the lead sponsor of the progressive Green New Deal who served as a co-chairwoman of Biden’s climate change task force, tweeted after the vice presidential debate.
Evan Weber, political director of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led group of climate activists, criticized Harris’ performance during the vice presidential debate, saying “the American people want climate action, and polls show Democrats have no reason to shy away from being bold.”
And even in Pennsylvania, there is evidence that fracking may not be the dominant issue that both Trump and Biden seem to think it is.
Several union leaders and members who said they are supporting Biden said the Trump administration made policy decisions that hurt their way of life, like reshaping the courts with conservative judges who oppose laws protecting union wages on federally-funded projects.
“Four more years of President Trump is just going to destroy our pensions,” said Thomas Melcher, business manager of the Pittsburgh Regional Building Trades Council, an umbrella organization of construction unions.
Melcher ticked off a list of what he felt were failed promises that Trump made: to bring manufacturing back, save coal and deliver a major infrastructure package.
“He says a lot of things, but everything that comes out of his mouth is a lie,” Melcher said of the president.
But even union leaders who back Biden acknowledged their rank-and-file is divided. And at least one powerful union leader, Shawn Steffee, a business agent and executive board member with the Boilermakers Local 154, has come out strongly for Trump.
“Joe Biden and Kamala Harris want nothing to do with the fossil fuel industry. He’s flip-flopped so many times, and President Trump has embraced fossil fuels, natural gas and coal,” Steffee said.
A 35-year Democrat before voting for Trump in 2016, Steffee said he plans to vote Republican again and believes most of his membership will, too. Their top issue: energy.
“Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have been totally unclear,” Steffee said, citing a comment Biden made last year that he will “end fossil fuel“ even as he vowed to protect fracking. “You can’t have it both ways,” Steffee said, adding, “My members and my local, we’re done riding the fence. We made a stand.”
Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist in Pennsylvania, said the Trump campaign’s line of attack is having an effect.
“I think Trump tying Biden to the Green New Deal works in areas not only where fracking is significant, but across the state. I think it’s helping Trump in the suburbs,” he said. He dismissed the polls showing Biden leading in Pennsylvania by double digits.
“That’s just about exactly where it was four years ago. Donald Trump has always outperformed polls and certainly outperformed them in Pennsylvania,” Gerow said.
G. Terry Madonna, a political-science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, conducts frequent polling in the state, and sees a critical difference between 2020 and 2016: Hillary Clinton paid little attention to white working-class voters when she campaigned, while Biden makes them a singular focus.
Trump “is not doing as well in these old mining and mill towns as he did four years ago,” Madonna said, “and he’s getting hammered in the suburbs” in large part because of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Madonna said he is skeptical of the importance of fracking in statewide elections. But, he noted, “when you win by 44,000 voters,” as Trump did in Pennsylvania four years ago, “you’ve got to be careful because a little thing here or there can make a difference.”
Harris was an original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal when it was proposed as a resolution, and in the Democratic primaries her platform included banning fracking. Biden has said the Green New Deal is a “crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face” but has not endorsed it. His plan calls for spending $2 trillion over four years to boost clean energy and eliminate fossil fuel emissions from the power sector by 2035.
He has pledged to end new permits for hydraulic fracturing on federal lands and waters, but said fracking “has to continue because we need a transition” to renewable energy.
“The Green New Deal is not my plan,” Biden said during the presidential debate last month. When asked at the vice presidential debate what the Biden administration’s stance toward the Green New Deal would be, Harris did not answer.
In western Pennsylvania, union members backing Biden said they want to help address climate change and also continue building gas infrastructure. They said they believe Biden will find a way to do both.
“The Democratic Party needs to be middle of the road. We’re for jobs. We’re for energy. We’re for people making a middle class way of life,” Broadbent said.
Jim Harding, a steamfitter in Alleghany County who has worked on gas sites for 30 years, said he is leaning toward Biden, and the attacks from the Trump campaign on fracking have not swayed him. He said he is not worried that once in office Biden will work with more liberal Democrats to eliminate gas and other fossil fuels.
“I think we have his ear,” Harding said, adding, “If not, he’ll hear from us, believe me.”