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Why Pence and Harris Couldn’t Stop Talking About Fracking During the Vice Presidential Debate

6 minute read

The moderator of Wednesday’s vice presidential debate hadn’t even brought up climate change when current Vice President Mike Pence jumped into the topic. But instead of talking about the science of the issue or offering a plan to address it, he sought to portray former Vice President Joe Biden’s climate stance as a radical ploy that would destroy the economy.

“They want to bury our economy under a $2 trillion Green New Deal,” Pence said when asked about how the U.S. would recover economically from the pandemic. “[They] want to abolish fossil fuels, and ban fracking, which would cost hundreds of thousands of American jobs all across the heartland.” The statement was misleading at best. Biden hasn’t proposed banning fracking, and doesn’t have the ability to do so. Nor does he have a plan to abolish fossil fuels in the near term.

But what’s perhaps more significant about Pence’s statement is that it signals the rise of climate change as a key issue in the presidential contest. In a race filled with dramatic twists and turns, the discussion about climate change on display Wednesday was notable for how closely it hewed to talking points and represented the back and forth on the issue playing out in both parties’ campaigning across the country, and particularly in the swing state of Pennsylvania.

In recent years, as extreme weather has intensified and scientists have sounded alarm bells, climate change has risen on the list of Democratic Party priorities. The issue ranked as a top issue alongside health care in the Democratic primary, and polling suggests that Democratic voters continue to rank it as a top concern even amid the ongoing public health and economic crises. Biden responded with an aggressive plan to stem emissions and eliminate the U.S. carbon footprint by 2050.

The rise of climate change as a top-tier political issue has left Republicans in a bind. Many Republicans now recognize climate change as a real issue, and the long-time strategy of casting doubt on the science no longer works. Still, many Republicans refuse to embrace significant climate measures, in large part because of the fossil-fuel industry’s strong and persistent lobby in Washington. So, instead, many Republicans have sought to portray climate action as unaffordable. The “vast majority of Americans” understand that climate change is happening, John McLaughlin, one of Trump’s top pollsters, told the podcast Climate 2020 last year. But “they don’t want to lose their jobs over this and they don’t want to pay a lot of money.”

The Green New Deal, a resolution introduced by Congressional Democrats in 2019 that calls for bold public spending to address climate change and other social ills, has become the center around which partisan arguments have churned. Republicans have claimed that the resolution would ban cows and planes, among other things, and that it would cost $90 trillion. (Needless to say, these claims are both false and outlandish). In response, Biden has tread carefully, calling the congressional resolution a “crucial framework,” but stressing that he has his own, different plan. (He’s priced that plan at $2 trillion).

The Republican strategy of trying to pillory Biden for the Green New Deal was on full display Wednesday. Asked about the economy, Pence pivoted to the Green New Deal. Following criticism of the administration’s position on health care, Pence pivoted to the Green New Deal. Asked about the science of climate change, Pence pivoted to the Green New Deal.

Harris, who co-sponsored the congressional resolution, mostly dissembled on the question of how closely Biden’s climate plan hews to the Green New Deal, but she did push back hard against Pence’s claim that Biden would ban fracking. “I will repeat, and the American people know, that Joe Biden will not ban fracking,” Harris said. “That is a fact.”

While most Americans want to see the federal government take action to address climate change, there are a range of views about what policies to implement. That’s particularly the case in places heavily dependent on fossil fuels, like parts of rural Pennsylvania, a swing state that could be decisive in the presidential race and is home to a sizable oil-and-gas industry presence that uses fracking to drill. “It’s how you get there that really creates the challenge in rural America,” Heidi Heitkamp, a former Democratic U.S. senator from North Dakota, told me on a panel hosted by D.C.-based think tank Third Way earlier this week. “If the Green New Deal means you get there by stopping all fracking, all development, you’re not going to buy into that” if you live in a part of the country that depends on the industry.

The Trump campaign has sought to make the climate issue all about fracking and the Green New Deal. In campaign visits to Pennsylvania, Trump himself has repeated the claim that Biden would ban fracking, and the President is currently running at least one campaign ad in the state seeking to drive that message home. In response, while on the ground in Pennsylvania, Biden has repeatedly told voters that he would not ban fracking and instead has sought to draw attention to his plan to create millions of clean energy jobs.

Harris made those points during the debate. “Joe Biden has been very clear that he thinks about growing jobs,” she said. “Part of those jobs that will be created by Joe Biden are going to be about clean energy and renewable energy.”

It’s not clear that the Trump campaign’s strategy to hammer Biden on fracking is actually resonating. Polling has shown that voters believe a transition to renewable energy will actually create jobs and the messaging has given Biden an opening to talk to Pennsylvanians about his actual plan.

Ahead of the debate, Michael Catanzaro, a former energy and environmental policy in the Trump White House, said that the Trump campaign sensed Biden was vulnerable on energy in Pennsylvania, but noted that the issue also provided an opening for Biden. “I think the [former] vice president has been on the defensive a bit,” on fracking, he said. “But I think it’s actually working for him. He’s coming out; he’s talking to union voters.”

And, for the voters who may have missed Biden’s fracking remarks on the campaign trail, Harris left no room for misinterpretation during Wednesday’s debate.

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Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com