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The political debate over natural gas burns bright in Casey-McCormick Senate race

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. (left) and GOP Senate candidate David McCormick
Patrick Semansky/Marc Levy
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. (left) and GOP Senate candidate David McCormick

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. If you want it earlier — we'll deliver it to your inbox on Thursday afternoon — sign up here.

Natural gas may not be renewable, but in Pennsylvania the political debate around it is. It's just too bad we can’t figure out how to harness the heated rhetoric about its environmental and economic impact every election cycle.

And just in time for 2024, President Joe Biden announced a pause on proposals to build new facilities to export the gas, which is frozen to a liquid state before shipping.

The move to tap the brakes on liquified natural gas, as it’s called, cheered environmentalists who say we have to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. It also provoked electoral doomsaying about the impact on Democrats from the usual suspects, who say it will antagonize union members and others who benefit from drilling. Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dave McCormick, at least, wasted no time using it to attack Democrat Bob Casey. The very morning of Biden’s announcement, McCormick tweeted that the move was “dead wrong” and demanded to know “Why is Bob Casey standing with him on this?”

One reason might be that Democratic incumbents, unlike GOP challengers, don’t have the luxury of reflexively opposing everything Biden does. And a lot of what Biden has done to date hasn’t exactly harmed the industry. Under Biden and former President Donald Trump alike, the U.S. has quickly become the world’s largest gas exporter.

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What’s more, Biden’s order won’t forestall the completion of several LNG facilities already under construction. By themselves, those facilities should help double exports of gas in the years ahead. The industry’s growth appears assured for several years to come — which is the kind of security that any journalist would kill for.

Even so, Casey joined with fellow Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman Wednesday to say that “while the immediate impacts on Pennsylvania remain to be seen, we have concerns about the long-term impacts. … If this decision puts Pennsylvania energy jobs at risk, we will push the Biden Administration to reverse this decision.”

Critics will find that mealy-mouthed, but Casey has openly criticized the Biden administration on gas policy before — within just the past few weeks, actually. Late last year, Biden proposed tax credits to support hydrogen fuel, and Casey was quick to echo complaints that the credits were structured in a way that would harm the gas industry.

When I asked McCormick’s campaign whether this weighed against the idea that Casey was a rubber-stamp, it sent a statement that didn’t address the query directly, but it said “Bob Casey and Joe Biden oppose building out the powerhouse of American natural gas to its full potential.”

Meanwhile, industry groups say they are ready to fight any change that hurts their cause. The Marcellus Shale Coalition, the region’s natural gas group, has “joined forces with a number of other organizations both state and national in scope” to protest the move, said president Dave Callahan. “You can guarantee that we will be commenting and sharing with elected officials.”

Part of the message will be that natural gas burns cleaner than coal, and that many nations plan to use natural gas instead of coal as a cleaner-energy strategy. Reducing future export growth may upset those plans.

“The administration has pointed to climate as an issue, but we’re a solution to climate concerns,” Callahan said.

Environmentalists contest that: Natural gas may produce less carbon dioxide than coal, but the burning of methane may add to the threat of climate change. And whether restricting exports makes sense hinges not just on what the U.S. does, but on how other nations react. Will they commit to renewable energy as environmentalists hope? Or by relying more on coal?

Those are big questions, and even a week after Biden’s announcement, it’s still unclear how long it will take to answer them.

For now, it’s also not entirely clear how much harm there is in asking.

For one thing, the pause itself is “probably not a big deal,” said Jeremy Weber, a University of Pittsburgh professor who studies energy policy. It “might delay some drilling, but I would expect the effect to be quite marginal.”

Getting permits and building terminals already takes years. In the meantime, swings in demand are normal for the industry, thanks to factors such as weather patterns.

And it’s not as if the booming export market has had a huge effect on the local job market so far: Industry employment in Pennsylvania has been flat — or “consistent” as Callahan describes it — for the past few years.

Still, as Weber notes, we can’t really begin to gauge the effect of Biden’s move until we know the policy it produces. “Is this going to be a tweak?” Weber asks. “Or is it the beginning of the end?”

We probably won’t know the answer until after the election, which may well prove convenient for Democrats. So although we can’t say how power will be produced in the future, the political debate will turn on who gets to wield it now.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has already faulted the pause as a “political ploy to pander to keep-it-in-the-ground climate activists,” an observation shared by more than a few pundits — even as environmentalists counter that for too long, officials have pandered to the fossil fuel industry. (The Sierra Club notes that the feds have yet to reject a single LNG terminal proposal.)

For years, Pennslyvania Democrats have scrambled to appease both their environmental base and union supporters who work in the business. And they’ve succeeded despite GOP efforts to use it as a wedge issue. Even guys like Fetterman — a foe of the industry in his first run for Senate back in 2016 — tout his support of it today.

But for his part, Weber said, “I don’t see the folks who pushed for this pause in the first place going away. They’ve reached enough influence to make this happen. And I think it signals that exports are going to be a political football from here on out.”

Good thing we’re used to that by now in Pennsylvania.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.