But to win there, he’ll have to overcome his party’s baggage on energy.
Many Rust Belt voters rely on oil and natural gas jobs and they’re wary of Democratic proposals, such as the “Green New Deal,” that push for “net-zero emissions” and would effectively put coal and other fossil fuels out of business. The party has also taken aim at fracking, which has become the lifeblood of many previously down-and-out rural communities in those states.
Biden has struck a more moderate tone. He doesn’t support a fracking ban, and has indicated he sees a future role for fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. But he still faces skeptical voters in an industry that a Bloomberg News analysis shows employs nearly 5 million people across the nation, including hundreds of thousands in politically important swing states.
“History has shown that people almost always vote with their pocketbook, especially if they believe that their jobs or livelihood are at risk,” said Jeffrey Kupfer, an adjunct professor of policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “In a close election, that could make a real difference.”
In Ohio, which holds its primary Tuesday and employs 174,406 people in oil and gas and related industries, Hillary Clinton’s now infamous remarks about putting the coal industry out of business during her 2016 run for president are still fresh on the mind of many voters four years later. She later went on to write that it was a gaffe and her biggest regret of the campaign.
“It’s like political suicide if you come out here and say you are against oil and gas or against fracking,” said Clint Powell, a 44-year-old union worker, over a cup of coffee at Schlepp’s Family Restaurant in Belmont, Ohio. “This picked us up from everything we lost.”
Powell and others in Labors International Union of North America, Local #809, have been working in southeastern Ohio, near the borders of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, thanks to the natural gas boom made possible by fracking, a drilling technique that unlocks previously inaccessible reserves of oil and gas from underground rock formations.
Some Democrats want the controversial process banned over its environmental and health impacts. To workers here, however, the drilling rigs that rise on the rolling hillsides once mined for coal are a sign of revitalization of an area that had been hit hard by a downtown in mining and steel.
While Biden rejects the fracking ban supported by his main rival for the nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders, the former vice president has still made the oil and gas industry nervous. Biden has called for banning new oil and gas projects on public lands and waters and for putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions as part of his $1.7 trillion climate plan.
But that doesn’t bother Democrats like Jim Milleson, a 55-five-year-old real estate broker who has seen his business prosper thanks to the fracking boom. Milleson’s family has been active in Ohio’s Democratic party since the 1940s — his father was a Democratic member of the state Senate in the 70s. In this campaign, he’s a Biden delegate.
“He’s one of us,” said Milleson, a large man with a white beard who keeps a copy of the Bible in the front console of his pickup truck. “I firmly believe that a Biden presidency would allow for a continual growth in all sectors of energy with a balance of environmental protections and new uses for coal and its byproducts.”
The crowded field of Democratic candidates in the race initially pushed Biden to the left on energy as they sought to out do each other with multitrillion dollar climate plans that appeal to progressive voters. Sanders, a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, also has vowed to phase-out use of coal and natural gas in the nation’s electricity system by 2030 in favor of “virtually free” government owned renewable energy.
“Scientists are telling us that if we don’t act incredibly boldly within the next six, seven years, there will be irreparable damage done,” Sanders said on the debate stage recently. “This is an existential threat.
Even if Sanders eventually drops out, Biden will still have to win over progressive groups backing the Vermont senator to win the general election.
“For Biden to defeat Trump, he needs young voters behind him and public demonstrations in support of the Green New Deal is one of the ways we can bring people into the movement,” said Sofie Karaoke, a spokeswoman for Sunrise Movement, a group of young people dedicated to fighting climate change that protested Biden throughout his campaign.
Republicans and their allies in the oil and gas industries say they are counting on Democrats’ positions on energy to alienate millions in the industry.
Pennsylvania, which Democrats most likely have to win to beat Trump, employs 215,014 oil and gas workers. Texas, which Democrats hope to one day turn blue, has about 130,000 natural gas wells and 839,776 workers in the oil and gas business. Those are well-paying jobs too: the average salary for a worker in oil and gas extraction is $170,109.
Like the iPhone
The American Petroleum Institute, the nation’s largest oil and gas trade group, in February reported that a ban on fracking would cut as many as 7.5 million jobs by 2022 and reduce the U.S. gross domestic product by $1.2 trillion over the same time period compared to 2019.
The group is running digital ads in swing states focusing on the increased energy costs and lost jobs a ban they say a fracking ban would cause.
Fracking is used on about 90% of U.S. wells and involves injecting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals to crack dense rock formations deep underground freeing trapped natural gas or oil. The well stimulation technique, in combination with horizontal drilling, has been “as consequential as the invention of the iPhone,” according to API, and led to the production of so much oil and gas that the U.S. last year became a net exporter of it for the first time in 60 years.
The practice has also been blamed for air pollution, tainted groundwater and even earthquakes.
Back in Belmont County, Ohio, not everyone supports fracking. Jill Hunkler, a 45-year-old art teacher, said she backs Sanders in part because she agrees with him about banning the practice.
“It’s not like these companies don’t know about the health risks. They just don’t care,” said Hunkler. She blames wells and a compressor station about a mile and half downwind from her home for making her so sick with headaches, rashes, and anxiety that she’s put the wooden cabin she built with her family on the market.
Belmont County, like other neighboring counties, was once solidly blue, bolstered by Democratic-aligned union coal miners and other laborers, said Paul Sracic, chair of Youngstown State University’s Department of Politics and International Relations. As those jobs disappeared, the area gradually shifted Republican. The county gave Trump nearly 68% of the vote in 2016.
“We are trying to win back some of those votes,” said Dale Butland, an Ohio Democratic strategist. “There are a lot of people who aren’t looking for a revolution. They are looking for someone normal, whose policies don’t scare the bejesus out of them.”
Biden faces a balancing act on energy if he wants to win over the parts of the Rust Belt that Trump turned red in 2016. Even Milleson, the Biden delegate, says he won’t vote for any Democrat who supports a ban on fracking.
“When someone comes out and says, ‘You know what? I’m going to shut your industry down,’” said Milleson, showing off new restaurants and hotels built during the oil and gas boom. “Why would you support them?