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HOUSTON — When last week’s presidential debate turned to oil and gas, Republican congressional candidate Wesley Hunt perked up.
Running to represent part of the self-proclaimed energy capital of the world, Hunt said he immediately realized the exchange between Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden would resonate not only in western Harris County, but across Texas.
Pressed by Trump at the tail end of the debate to clear up his position on whether he wants to ban fracking, Biden said he would "transition" from the fossil fuel industry that powers much of this state's economy.
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“The oil industry pollutes,” Biden said. “It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.”
Republicans in Texas have latched onto this section of Thursday’s debate as a sort of closing argument in an election cycle where they find themselves in the unusual position of fighting to protect their dominance in a state that polls, political spending and campaign activity suggest has become a political battleground just days before Tuesday’s election.
And in a general election where the performance of the incumbent president is on the ballot, Republicans have also found themselves defending — or in some cases distancing themselves from — the Trump administration on its response to the coronavirus pandemic and the federal deficit.
But political analysts said Biden's comments gave Texas Republicans material for an offensive political maneuver in the last stage of the campaign.
“This is dangerous talk for us,” Hunt said in an interview. “There are 250,000 jobs affiliated with the oil and gas industry, but it impacts millions of people because of the industries that are tangentially related.”
The pandemic has upended every sector of the Texas economy, resulting in a 8.3% unemployment rate in September, which surpassed the national unemployment rate of 7.9% and returned the state to the unemployment levels of the Great Recession.
Oil and gas jobs were hit especially hard. There were 22.6% fewer workers in September in the mining and logging industry, which includes the oil and gas sector, compared with September 2019, according to non-seasonally adjusted numbers.
During the debate, Biden said he wants to use emerging alternative energy sources as a way to help the environment and grow the economy, while Trump accused the former vice president of trying to "destroy the oil industry."
“It’s a clarion call to the true Texan at heart who believes the state was built on oil,” Dr. Stephanie Martin, a professor of political communication at Southern Methodist University, said in an interview.
The comments — and Trump's request that Texans remember Biden's remarks — reminded Martin of 2016, when Trump ran for office against eight years of the Obama presidency, campaigning on creating jobs, “and those arguments related in part to the Democratic party not supporting jobs related to fossil fuels.”
“This goes to how Republicans really want to re-create the race of 2016 and that environment where they were running against Democratic incumbency,” Martin said. “And this is a sliver of that. Because it is not a lie that Democrats don’t want to expand fracking.”
The oil and gas industry has been following Biden’s positions closely: In Thursday's debate, Biden said, "I do rule out banning fracking," but said he would "ban fracking on federal land" and, over time, replace the practice with renewable energies. Biden focused more on tying climate issues to the energy industry.
In April, shortly before the price of a barrel of oil plunged negative, energy executives at a widely watched hearing chastised their own industry over lousy financial management and pollution malpractice.
“No one wants to give us capital because we have all destroyed capital and created economic waste,” Scott Sheffield, CEO of Irving-based Pioneer Natural Resources, said at the time.
“Flaring in the Permian Basin is the biggest black eye of our industry,” said Kirk Edwards, CEO of Odessa-based Latigo Petroleum.
But Martin said Biden’s comments at Thursday’s debate were “the mainstream Democratic position, which is: less fracking, more green energy.”
Punctuating that position in Texas this week was an investment by billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who announced a $2.6 million donation to Chrysta Castañeda, the Democratic nominee for the Texas Railroad Commission, the three-member board elected to regulate the state's massive oil and gas industry.
With more material provided by Biden, it's sensible for Republicans at this stage of the race to highlight energy, according to Karr Ingham, an Amarillo-based economist with the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers.
“It certainly makes sense politically, and it makes sense economically,” Ingham said in an interview. “It makes sense to point out the fact that there's uncertainty on the Democratic side of the aisle with how they would handle energy from a policy standpoint and where they want to go from here.”
Simultaneously, Texas Republicans have not emphasized the climate repercussions of large-scale energy production, as Sheffield and other energy executives noted, with energy producers in the Permian Basin and elsewhere continuing to hurt the environment.
Hunt’s opponent in his race, U.S. Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a Democrat who was elected in 2018 to the same seat Republican George H.W. Bush once held, has tried to balance the importance of energy with the urgent issue of climate change.
“Here in Houston, we understand and are working every day to address the dual challenge of meeting global energy demand and addressing the real threat of climate change,” Fletcher said in a statement last week. “The comments at last night’s debate fail to address the complexity of our energy needs and plan for our future. In Congress, I have been a vocal advocate for and a partner with energy industry leaders here in TX-07 to develop and implement sound energy policy."
Until last week’s debate, the Trump campaign had “struggled to attack the Biden campaign on energy, when voters mostly like the idea of paying attention to climate, paying attention to climate policy,” said Martin, the SMU professor.
In polls, Trump is underperforming previous Republican candidates in Texas, though he still maintains a lead. Meanwhile, Republicans in Texas are facing challenges up and down the ballot in large cities, suburbs and rural areas, especially in parts of the state Democrats have not always even fielded candidates. And Democrats in races for everything from the Legislature to Congress are hauling in enough campaign donations that many are heading into the final days of the election with more cash on hand than their GOP rivals.
It is unclear, however, whether this final push on the oil and gas industry by Texas Republicans will ultimately make a difference, Martin said.
“But it just shows you how difficult conditions are for Republicans because to talk about the economy in its more macro sense requires them to talk about coronavirus and risk voters not blaming the administration for that,” Martin said.
Hunt is running against Fletcher for a district that includes what's called the Energy Corridor, a roughly 7-mile stretch of businesses that includes significant operations of large oil companies like BP, Citgo, ConocoPhillips and Shell. But he hasn’t found it so tricky to talk about the economy or the oil industry's place in it.
“It’s the No. 1 issue,” Hunt said. “It’s our economy. It’s Houston’s values. It’s Houston’s way of life.”
Disclosure: Southern Methodist University and Texas Alliance of Energy Producers have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.