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Joe Biden's Pennsylvania hurdle: Voters who fear a California-style energy plan

By Seema Mehta and Evan Halper, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Political News

PITTSBURGH - When a major airline stopped using this city's airport as a global hub in 2004, a billion-dollar renovation project that was supposed to breathe life into the regional economy became a suffocating financial burden, and local leaders stopped looking to the sky for salvation.

Instead, they looked beneath their feet.

Hydraulic fracturing of vast stores of natural gas under Pittsburgh International Airport and thousands of surrounding acres not only bailed out an airport skidding toward default, it touched off a boom that has generated jobs and shaped the economy of southwestern Pennsylvania for two decades.

Now, the future of that boom could shape the presidential race.

Television commentary about the presidential race may focus on the future of the Supreme Court and other national questions, but in the states that will actually decide the election, local issues often matter more. In this corner of America, that means fracking.

Voters whose economic well-being depends on extracting natural gas are extremely skeptical of any politician who would inhibit it. President Donald Trump is doing everything he can to exploit those worries, taking aim at Joe Biden's plan to rapidly phase out fossil-fuel power plants to brand the Democrat as a threat to the region's energy boom.

 

Biden doesn't support a ban on fracking on private property, where all the fracking happens in Pennsylvania. But he does want to stop the procedure on federal lands, which would have more impact in the West and be a blow to the broader industry. Biden's running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, has been a vocal proponent of outlawing fracking altogether, which California Gov. Gavin Newsom has now proposed as statewide policy.

Biden's nuanced position has created tension in both directions: Even as Trump falsely accuses him of wanting to ban fracking, climate activists during the primaries attacked him for not going further. Some activists continue to press the Democrats to adopt more sweeping climate policies, regardless of the political risk.

That frustrates some Democratic leaders here, including Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who backs a gradual transition to renewable energy.

"Denying climate science is lunacy," Fetterman said. "But to pretend we can windmill and solar panel our entire nation's infrastructure is disingenuous and ignores reality, too." He pointed to a recent fracking moratorium in California at the same time the state continued to rely on electricity generated with natural gas produced by fracking elsewhere.

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