Oil and gas industry, leaning on Pittsburgh region, punches back against fracking ban in messaging campaign

WASHINGTON — Allegheny County Councilman Sam DeMarco found himself on an unusually big stage Tuesday, where the likes of Bob Dylan, Kenny Chesney, The National and Meek Mill performed in the past year.

Mr. DeMarco, introducing himself to a crowd of 800 people drawn to a glitzy new entertainment district along the Potomac River, touted his home turf: “This is the region providing much of the energy making our country stronger and more self-reliant,” he said. “Tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians are enjoying the jobs, the safety and the comfort this industry is bringing.”

Mr. DeMarco’s message — along with his Western Pennsylvania roots — is a central pillar of the oil and gas industry’s national campaign in 2020, unveiled in the face of rising political pressure to address climate change.

The American Petroleum Institute used its annual policy event here to make clear it would punch back against calls for nationwide bans on fracking proposed by leading Democratic presidential candidates.

The Pittsburgh region was among seven areas of the country that the industry trade association highlighted as places energy jobs are embedded into the fabric of the local economy. A ban on the drilling technique, an API report estimated, would mean 7.3 million lost jobs.

“Here’s a glimpse at that vision: Millions of jobs lost, a spike in household energy costs, a manufacturing downturn, less energy security in the short run,” said Mike Sommers, the association’s president and CEO. “A fracking ban in America would quickly invite a global recession.”

Mr. Sommers, in a conference call with reporters, said oil and gas companies have gradually lowered emissions, all while making the United States the top producer of oil and gas in the world. Energy independence has been the goal of the last seven American presidents, he pointed out.

Mr. Sommers called fracking — which over the past two decades has unlocked pools of natural gas in Pennsylvania previously trapped by shale rock — “one of the most important environmental achievements in this country.” Natural gas burns cleaner than coal, and Pennsylvania’s shale drilling boom pushed down the cost of natural gas enough to replace coal as the country’s primary source of power generation.

“We are stepping up to the plate to address the issue of climate change,” he said, by supporting “smart regulation” and laws to encourage carbon capture and storage technologies.

Yet the group has pushed back against climate policies, drawing criticism from environmental advocates.

The industry successfully pressed for a relaxation of Obama-era federal methane rules, which aimed to require natural gas operators to fix methane leaks and cut down on flaring. Methane is a significantly more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, told a Congressional panel in September that the Trump administration’s plan to indirectly regulate methane would ensure oversight. The EPA has existing regulations on volatile organic compounds, a category of gases that is separate but related to methane, he said.

“VOC emissions will go down, and, as a side benefit, methane emissions will also go down,” Mr. Wheeler said. “We want to make sure that our regulatory approach does not stifle innovation.”

The industry group also has advocated to end the renewable fuel standard, a program that requires refiners to blend a certain amount of biofuels, such as corn-based ethanol, into the nation’s fuel supply. Supporters of the program, including corn farmers and lawmakers from farming states, argue it’s a way to help growers and supply a renewable source of fuel.

At the urging of some Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., the Trump administration has granted waivers to small refineries that sought to avoid the ethanol purchases.

Mr. Sommers, speaking with reporters, called the renewable fuel standard a “failed policy” and an unnecessary program now that the United States is the dominant producer of oil and gas. And he blamed methane emissions primarily on stalled pipeline projects: Natural gas producers have to flare, he said, because they don’t yet have the pipelines to move their product to the consumer.

The oil and gas industry, by addressing its views on climate policies, previews the battle over a key issue in the 2020 presidential election and contested races for Congress.

Democratic presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have called for a nationwide ban on fracking, citing concerns over pollution and public health. Some House Democrats have signed on to the Green New Deal, a sweeping proposal that would put the country on a path to a carbon-free economy.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto pledged last fall to oppose any new petrochemical facility in the region.

Environmental advocates on Tuesday were not sold on the industry’s rhetoric.

“If Donald Trump and API had their way, the state of American energy would be underwater due to the consequences of fossil fuel-powered climate change,” said Melinda Pierce, legislative director for the Sierra Club, in a written statement.

“Fortunately, with overwhelming public support, multiple states and cities are setting 100% clean energy goals, making it clear the state of American energy is clean and renewable,” she said.

Mr. Sommers, in lunchtime remarks to the attendees, said an absolutist debate between jobs and the environment would lead to “false choices.” What he viewed as “extreme” climate policies would prevail “unless we answer directly with evidence, sharing our stories and those from communities across the country to drive the conversation.”

The appearance by Mr. DeMarco, who last year was elected chairman of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County, showed the industry is ready for a fight.

Mr. DeMarco joined a chorus of local officials outraged by Mr. Peduto’s comments in October about the petrochemical industry. And a new countywide ad campaign invites Democrats to switch parties.

In an interview after the event, Mr. DeMarco pointed to new projects at the Pittsburgh International Airport and booming employment at the Royal Dutch Shell cracker plant in Beaver County as evidence of the industry’s prosperity. He plans to take that message on the campaign trail, he said.

“When people understand what [a fracking ban] would mean to them,” he said, “I believe they’ll make the smart decision.”