Trump slams Dems, pitches nat gas future during Pittsburgh visit

President Donald Trump speaks at a fracking industry conference in Pittsburgh, PA on October 23, 2019. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — President Donald Trump and his allies pitched a natural gas-fueled future for Pennsylvania and the nation Wednesday.

Trump’s speech at a convention center in downtown Pittsburgh comes in the midst of both the warm-up to his 2020 reelection campaign and a mounting impeachment effort in the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives.

Speaking to a roomful of industry insiders and state policymakers, Trump promised to “bring 100,000 energy jobs to Appalachia” and “rebuild this magnificent region,” echoing promises the industry and its allies have made since the shale boom started a decade ago.

The conference, Shale Insight, brings together natural gas industry executives and related support services from across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.

The region’s economy has been reenergized by unconventional gas drilling, which uses high powered jets of water and chemicals to break open shale rock far beneath the earth’s surface and release natural gas trapped within. This process is known as fracking.

During his successful 2016 White House bid, Trump spoke at the same conference preaching his deregulatory message as salvation to Rust Belt communities across middle America, sparking protests

The same was true in Pittsburgh’s city streets Wednesday, with multiple arrests reported.

To the assembled executives and politicians, the future is full of brand new pipelines carrying natural gas to manufacturing or export hubs, leading to economic prosperity.

“We want a vision for Pennsylvania that embraces the use of natural gas and the Marcellus Shale … for the benefit of all Pennsylvanians,” state House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said Wednesday morning, as he plugged his plan to encourage the gas industry in the commonwealth.

Trump has emphasized this point during multiple visits to Pennsylvania in the past months, including at a petrochemical plant under construction 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh in Monaca, Pa. The facility will convert fracked ethane gas into plastics.

Trump tried to take credit for the project, which was announced before his presidency. 

But the plant, as well as other good economic news — from low unemployment to rising paychecks (at least in some cases) — are promises kept, according to Trump. 

Trump made his speech surrounded by workers, some union members, in hard hats and reflective vests. But local labor leaders were not impressed.

In a statement, Darrin Kelly, leader of the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council, said that Trump’s tax plan, push to eliminate Obamacare, and failure to pass an infrastructure bill show he has not kept promises to workers despite the energy boom.

“President Trump comes to Pittsburgh and says he stands with our workers, then goes back to Washington and proves the opposite with his policies,” Kelly said in a statement. “Every time he’s had the choice to be with us or against us, he’s gone against us.”

Pennsylvania is the No. 2 natural gas producer in the United States, according to federal data — ahead of every state but Texas. The state also ranks fourth in total greenhouse gas emissions in the nation.

But the risks of climate change went unmentioned in Trump’s speech. Trump also received applause when he mentioned leaving the Paris Climate Accords, an international agreement of nations to cut back on carbon emissions and forestall the worst impacts of climate change. 

The president cited the nation’s declining carbon emissions, which he attributed to use of natural gas, while also claiming credit for protecting and preserving the coal industry.

But it’s the replacement of coal with gas — which has continued under Trump — that has led to large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions both state and nationwide.

Climate experts agree that, as the federal National Climate Assessment released last year states, “more immediate and substantial global greenhouse gas emissions reductions, as well as regional adaptation efforts, would be needed to avoid the most severe consequences in the long term.”

The report, from 13 different agencies, warned the United States’ GDP could lose hundreds of billions of dollars over the coming century, while putting many Americans at risk of disease and natural disaster.

A 2-degree Celsius increase in global temperature would bring a higher likelihood of droughts, floods, extreme storms, and other natural disasters, putting millions more people globally at greater risk of climate-related hardships, according to a 2018 report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

A 2015 study from University College London found that “the unabated use of all current fossil fuel reserves is incompatible” with keeping a temperature increase under that mark. 

It found that one third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves, and more than four-fifths of coal reserves should remain unused to avoid that upper temperature bound.

In a statement, Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the environmental group Food and Water Action, said that Trump “is speaking to his base today — the fracking companies whose profits he has put above the health and safety of the planet.” 

“This polluting industry sees Trump as its savior, along with an administration that rejects science and cheers on climate destruction,” Hauter continued.

A ‘just transition’ to clean energy

A potential move away from fossil fuels has become a political football, as Trump demonstrated Wednesday by hammering Democrats for backing far-reaching climate policy, such as the Green New Deal — which he did not name.

“Anti-energy zealots are blinded by ideology,” Trump said. 

He also claimed that “Democrats want to ban shale energy” — true, so far, for a handful of presidential candidates, including U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. The two are among the current front-runners for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020.

Trump said Democrats would “obliterate” energy jobs, something that under his watch would “never ever come close to happening.” The remark earned him a standing ovation from the energy-friendly crowd. 

While attacking Trump, local labor leader Kelly also criticized members of the other party who back a ban, saying that “most Democrats and Republicans in western Pennsylvania support safe, responsible natural gas development.”

“We expect that kind of common sense from all our leaders,” he said. 

Ed Hill, a business development manager with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers who attended Shale Insight, told the Capital-Star that the union is “agnostic” on where power comes from. 

Electricity is electricity, and whether it’s wiring a solar panel or building a natural gas compression station, the jobs will be in IBEW’s purview, he said.

Organizing a “just transition” away from natural gas and other fossil fuels — a shift to clean energy that doesn’t result in lost jobs or lowered income — isn’t out of the realm of possibility, and the job opportunities are obvious. It’s just the details that get tricky, Hill said.

For example, IBEW members working at closing coal power stations don’t have a skillset that might fit neatly into a green economy.

“You’re 50 years old, do you want to go out and climb a windmill tower?” Hill said.

Even less obvious a transition exists for Josh Marsh, a welder with Pipeliners Local 798, a union representing thousands of welders and other trade workers who construct pipelines.

A 20-year veteran welder who’s worked on too many pipelines to count, Marsh told the Capital-Star cooperation between the union and contractors has gotten more common as the spotlight on their industry has brightened.

His job, he’s added, has attracted stigma from former high school colleagues. But it’s also made him try to speak publicly about his work more.

For example, more electric cars will increase demand for rare earth materials used in batteries. Mining those could come with some environmental degradation, Marsh argued.

“No matter which route we go, there’s going to be pros and cons,” Marsh told the Capital-Star. “Right now we have to worry about sustaining our standard of living and preserving the environment as best we can.”