Oct. 23--President Donald Trump's quest to win over Western Pennsylvania's working-class and suburban voters continues Wednesday with a visit to Downtown Pittsburgh.
The president's appearance as a keynote speaker during the Shale Insight conference at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center will mark Trump's second trip to the region in less than three months.
Several political observers told the Tribune-Review they expect to see more frequent visits by Trump and his allies as the 2020 election approaches: Support from Pennsylvania -- and the southwestern portion of the state, in particular -- is paramount to Trump's chances at re-election.
"This election could come down to Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida, and of the states that are pivotal, we (Pennsylvania) have the second-largest number of electoral votes," said Terry Madonna, political scientist and poll director at Franklin & Marshall College.
"Trump can't win the presidential election without the blue-collar, working-class base that's heavily, heavily part of southwestern Pennsylvania," Madonna said.
Touting the shale industry's growth
The Trump campaign is working to deepen its fundraising base in the region and appeal to the people of the Rust Belt, including not only working-class voters but also Democrats who leaned Republican in 2016 in counties such as Beaver, Washington, Westmoreland and Greene, Madonna said.
Trump won Pennsylvania by less than 1% in 2016 -- the first time the state swung red in a presidential election since George H.W. Bush's 1988 victory.
To retain and expand that slim margin, Madonna and other observers said Trump will have to make a strong case for boosting jobs and the economy.
The shale industry conference is a fitting setting because fracking and other Marcellus shale-related expansions are a major driver behind the region's economic growth, though not without environmental and other critics.
"The shale industry is a big part of the economy of the Southwest," Madonna said. "Even a liberal governor like (Democrat) Tom Wolf supports it."
Former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett said that the natural gas industry and the downstream jobs it creates are "extremely important for the region," whereas 15 years ago, "when you said Marcellus shale, nobody knew what you were talking about."
Matthew Rousu, economics professor at Susquehanna University, said that if not for fracking, even some of the region's most depressed areas "would have been struggling considerably more than they are."
Trump last spoke at the Shale Insight conference at the same location in Downtown Pittsburgh as a presidential candidate in September 2016.
During that campaign visit, Trump pledged to become the energy industry's ally as president by lifting regulatory restrictions, streamlining the permitting process and welcoming construction of more pipelines. He said that he planned to streamline the process for oil and gas companies to get projects moving forward and dramatically reduce regulations that he described as burdensome on natural gas, coal, manufacturing and other industries.
Trump is expected to follow up on those promises and explain how he is "ending the war on energy" during his remarks Wednesday, senior administration officials told reporters during a press call Tuesday.
This includes Trump administration efforts to scale back regulations, keep taxes low and promote fair trade, officials said.
Trump also is expected to discuss how those actions have helped to create jobs in industries like mining, logging and construction in Pennsylvania by growing the U.S. energy market.
Economists and industry observers are mixed on how much credit Trump can claim for growing such fields.
Not a whole lot has changed in Pennsylvania's energy sector in the past three years, according to Jay Apt, a professor in engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, where he is also co-director of the Electricity Industry Center.
"On balance, politics completely aside, if I look at the record under this administration, I would have to say that the state has not moved forward very rapidly," Apt said.
There has been an increase in the amount of coal mined in the state, but "on the other hand, the number of miners has not gone up because companies have put in more automation," Apt said.
Shale gas production has slowed as federal funding for research and development of drilling and imaging technologies that were critical to the growth of the industry were cut under the Trump administration, Apt said.
Other recent energy industry setbacks include the September closure of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant and the expected 2021 shutdown of the Beaver Valley Power Station in Shippingport, he added.
Trump 'can't wave a magic wand'
The shale gas industry has benefited communities across the state by creating jobs in a variety of industries, including hospitality, manufacturing and education, said Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.
"It continues to drive jobs to this commonwealth, and it continues to drive tax revenue into this commonwealth," he said.
But Trump "can't wave a magic wand" to make Pennsylvania friendlier to industry, Barr said. He said more needs to be done to reduce taxes and speed up permitting processes to make sure the state stays competitive with companies that could take their businesses elsewhere.
Trump again touted his pledge to "revive" the energy sector -- including not only fracking but also coal and related manufacturing jobs -- during a visit to the Shell ethane cracker plant construction site in Beaver County in August.
Friends and former colleagues of Corbett's told him they yelled at their screens while watching Trump speak at the Shell plant and claim full credit for the project's existence, Corbett said. They knew the decade-long project, which advanced while Corbett was governor, requires collaboration among labor, industry and politicians from both major political parties. Corbett declined to speak specifically about Trump or his administration.
When it comes to issues such as expediting permitting processes, "there are so many moving pieces," Corbett said.
In recent decades, the federal government increasingly has shifted the responsibility of permitting and enforcing environmental and other regulations to state and local governments, Corbett said, so the state of the industry is not determined solely by who's in the Oval Office. In addition, he said, sometimes permits get held up because of inefficiency, understaffing or inertia rather than from a deliberate attempt to stymie business applications and growth.
Rousu, the Susquehanna University economics professor, said he's observed a mixed bag from the Trump administration on economic issues.
"Some of the things have just been horrible ... especially escalating the trade war. Almost all economists are opposed to this," he said. "But then there are things like deregulations from Trump that seem to go under the radar but are pretty important."
Rousu cited examples of Trump's White House easing up regulatory burdens across several sectors, including not only natural gas but telecommunications, transportation, health care, the environment and banking.
Like most candidates do, Trump likely will use his remarks Wednesday to claim credit for any positive growth, Madonna said, even if he and his administration were only marginally tied to it. Trump also is prone to meander across a range of topics, making it hard to predict whether he'll also address the impeachment inquiry and escalation of violence in Syria. He likely will take at least a few jabs at Democratic rivals Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, Madonna predicted.
"He'll talk for an hour and a half and he'll cover 50 subjects," Madonna said. "That's his style."
Trump's remarks are scheduled to start shortly after 3:30 p.m.
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