with Alexandra Ellerbeck

To President Trump, it was “perhaps the most shocking admission ever uttered in the history of presidential debates.”

Trump and other Republicans are trying to turn Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s comment during last week’s debate about a “transition from the oil industry” into a game-changing gaffe — akin to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 promise to “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” The president hammered home that point while campaigning in Pennsylvania, a crucial swing state where fracking is a significant employer.

“Biden’s plan is an economic death sentence for Pennsylvania’s energy sector,” he told a crowd in Allentown on Monday.

By dinging Biden over oil, Trump is returning to his playbook in 2016, when he bashed Clinton over coal. But times have changed.

Although Biden’s answer at the debate may have been inartfully put, it’s not inconsistent with his overall plan for tackling climate change that he has been trumpeting for months. As we noted on Friday, Biden's goal of net-zero greenhouse gas contributions by 2050 cannot be achieved without significantly curtailing the burning of oil and gas. Indeed, his proposal does not call for a ban on fossil fuels but does include a major subsidy for consumers to buy electric vehicles and get rid of cars that rely exclusively on petroleum-based fuels.

“It’s not nearly as big of a gaffe” as Clinton’s, said Frank Maisano, an energy policy expert at Bracewell, a law and lobbying firm that represents energy firms. “It will have less of an impact on Biden.”

There are lots of potential reasons why. 

Any effect Biden’s comments will have on voters in Pennsylvania and other swing states is coming late.

The final debate was only 12 days before the end of voting. Clinton’s comments about the decline of the coal-fired power sector, by contrast, had a lot more time to sink in — coming eight months before November 2016.

And unlike four years ago, the coronavirus pandemic has prompted millions more Americans to vote early, taking the punch out of any controversy either candidate tries to spin up late in October.  

What’s more, coal simply has more cultural cache in the Midwest than oil does. 

While generations in Appalachia have worked in coal mines, fracking arrived in the region just a little more than a decade ago. 

“Coal has more symbolic resonance in swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio,” said Paul Bledsoe, a strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute and a climate adviser during Bill Clinton’s presidency who is backing Biden. 

Texas, where Democrats have tried to make inroads for years, may be a different story. 

Houston is the de facto capital of the U.S. petroleum industry. And oil and gas is drilled from geological formations across the state — not just in one corner of it, like it is from the Marcellus Shale in western Pennsylvania.

In 2018, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) edged out a charismatic and well-funded opponent in Beto O’Rourke in part by dinging the Democrat over once being open to the idea of a $10-per-barrel federal tax on oil. In an echo of Trump today, Cruz’s closing message that October was this: “For anyone in the oil and gas industry, you would have to be out of your mind to vote for Beto O’Rourke.”

Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based political consultant who has worked for both Republican politicians and energy companies, thinks Cruz’s decision to elevate oil as an issue helped him win in Texas. “Once the race got away from personality and back on issues,” he said, “that’s how Cruz won.”

Biden, though, has many paths to winning the White House without having to nab the Lone Star State. His repeated promises not to ban fracking are aimed mostly at voters in Pennsylvania, where union leaders have largely backed Biden and show no sign of changing their minds after Biden’s debate performance.

“We don’t view this as anything more than he misspoke,” said Russ Breckenridge, senior political adviser for the United Association of Union Plumbers and Pipefitters, which endorsed Biden and has about 15,000 members in Pennsylvania.

Trump's attacks may resonate less after four years in office. 

Trump tweeted that Biden will “ABOLISH the entire U.S. Oil Industry.” But the oil sector already isn’t doing that well under Trump.

The viral outbreak has destroyed demand for oil as Americans drive and fly less, leading to tens of thousands of layoffs and dozens of companies declaring bankruptcy

But the long-term outlook for the oil sector is starting to change, too. Companies are under pressure from politicians around the world to curtail climate-warming emissions from their products and operations. And investors are pouring money into Tesla with the expectation that electric vehicles will continue to penetrate the auto market.

Trump’s effort to hit Biden over energy policy is also undermined by Trump’s poor record on coal. Cheap gas and government-supported renewables continued to eat into the coal sector’s share of power production through his four years in office, despite the administration’s effort to prop up coal use by rolling back regulations.

In March 2016, Clinton talked about “coal miners” losing their jobs as part of a longer answer about helping blue-collar workers. “We’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people,” Clinton continued. “Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories.”

Americans actually like Biden's climate plan. 

The country is broadly concerned about the irreversible harm to the planet unchecked emissions will cause. Two-thirds of likely voters support the vice president's $2 trillion climate proposal, according to a poll this month from the New York Times and Siena College. 

Trump, meanwhile, has no comprehensive plan for curtailing global warming, often dismissing the scientific consensus that humans are contributing to the problem.

Biden is trying to sell his $2 trillion climate proposal as a job creation plan. 

“That’s what he was trying to articulate, but he didn’t do it,” Bledsoe said.

Yet unlike Clinton’s “coal miners” comment, Biden didn’t mention workers specifically — just that there would be a move away from burning oil-based products.

“He wasn’t that stupid,” Mackowiak said of Biden. “But the inference is the same.” 

Power plays

Scientists at GM and Ford knew 50 years ago that car emissions caused climate change.

“Researchers at both automakers found strong evidence in the 1960s and ’70s that human activity was warming the Earth,” E&E News writes. “The discoveries by General Motors and Ford Motor Co. preceded decades of political lobbying by the two car giants that undermined global attempts to reduce emissions while stalling U.S. efforts to make vehicles cleaner.”

The E&E News investigation, based on dozens of interviews and hundreds of pages of documents from both companies, found that a GM scientist presented findings on the impact of greenhouse gas emissions to top company executives. Meanwhile, a scientist at Ford predicted in 1961 that if carbon dioxide remained in the Earth’s atmosphere, it would lead to a temperature rise of 1.1 degree Celsius per century, a forecast that now looks prophetic.

“But in the following decades, both manufacturers largely failed to act on the knowledge that their products were heating the planet. Instead of shifting their business models away from fossil fuels, the companies invested heavily in gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs,” E&E News writes.

The companies donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to conservative think tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which have downplayed the risks from climate change. Both companies also resisted making major investments in electric cars until recently, and both made only minimal improvements in gas mileage since 1975, according to Environmental Protection Agency data.

Even as the United States and Europe mandate cleaner cars at home, they ship dirty vehicles abroad.

The United Nations warned on Monday that the United States and Europe were shipping millions of high-pollution vehicles to poorer countries in an unregulated trade that could have serious consequences for climate change and public health, the New York Times reports.

“The report, by the United Nations Environment Program, is the most detailed look yet at the global trade in secondhand cars, which has historically attracted little scrutiny. Between 2015 and 2018, the report found, the United States, the European Union and Japan exported 14 million used passenger cars abroad, with 70 percent ending up in low-income countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East,” the Times writes.

Regulators in the Netherlands have found that some exported cars have had their catalytic converters, which filter out pollutants, stripped for valuable metals. Meanwhile, researchers have found that the aging cars are more likely to crash.

“The report looked at 146 countries that import used cars and concluded that 86 of them had ‘weak’ or ‘very weak’ laws around the age or environmental performance of used vehicles entering their markets,” the Times writes. “While the report’s authors don’t call for a ban on the trade of used cars, they do recommend that countries do more to coordinate on minimum standards.” 

Vice President Pence pledged support for new copper and nickel mines during Minnesota campaign stop. 

“Pence spent about an hour in the cold defending Donald Trump’s first term and attacking Joe Biden at the Range Regional Airport eight days before the election,” the Minnesota-based Star Tribune reports. “He promised support for controversial new copper-nickel mines on the Iron Range, and falsely continued the narrative the Trump campaign has touched on in previous Minnesota visits: that the Obama administration closed the Range and Trump reopened it.” 

Although the Obama administration did block two copper mining leases in northern Minnesota over environmental concerns, the shutdowns that devastated the region starting in 2015 were largely the result of foreign countries dumping cheap steel in the United States. The Obama administration imposed tariffs on Chinese steel in 2016, and most mines were reopened before the end of Obama’s presidency. Since then, the Trump administration has continued to impose more tariffs and saw mining job growth until the coronavirus pandemic shuttered some mining operations.

Coal titan Bob Murray dies at 80.

Murray died at his home Oct. 25. He was the founder and chief executive of the coal giant Murray Energy, which recently emerged from bankruptcy as American Consolidated Natural Resources. Murrays death comes just a week after he announced his retirement from the company, WTOV9 reports.

No cause of death was given, but Murray had been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis and had recently filed for black-lung benefits from the Labor Department. The coal magnate had long battled mine safety regulations aimed at reducing the incidence of lung disease in miners.

Thermometer

Climate-fueled fires continue to drive mass evacuations and power outages in California.

“California is enduring its day of highest wildfire risk in a year that has featured unrelenting assaults from Mother Nature, with a fire season that has set records for the total amount of acres burned (more than 4.1 million) and for the size and destructiveness of the blazes,” our colleague Andrew Freedman writes. “On Monday, in Southern California, the fire danger rapidly ramped up with grassland fires and other spot fires popping up around Los Angeles County as winds reached 70 mph and above.”

Orange County Fire Authority have been fighting a fire in Irvine, Calif., that started early in the morning on Oct. 26. (The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, a fire in neighboring Orange County forced more than 60,000 people to evacuate the city of Irvine. Although Southern California was the primary area of concern on Monday afternoon, warnings are up throughout the state as strong land-to-sea winds bring dry air to a landscape where vegetation is already parched for moisture. The utility company Pacific Gas & Electric preemptively cut power to hundreds of thousands of Californians on Monday to reduce the risk of fallen power lines sparking new blazes.

Around the world

Japan vows to become carbon-neutral by 2050.

“Japans new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, committed his country on Monday to reaching a target of zero emissions of greenhouse gases and achieving a carbon-neutral society by 2050, with a ‘fundamental shift’ in policy on coal use,” our colleagues Simon Denyer and Akiko Kashiwagi report.   

“Responding to climate change is no longer a constraint on economic growth,” Suga said during his first policy speech to Japan’s parliament since taking office last month. “We need to change our thinking to the view that taking assertive measures against climate change will lead to changes in industrial structure and the economy that will bring about great growth.”

Japan is the world’s third-largest economy and the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. It joins the European Union and China in committing to carbon neutrality by mid-century. Environmentalists, however, say the country will need to start decommissioning coal plants if the commitment is to become a reality.