By HOLMAN W. JENKINS, JR. –
In one way, the President Obama who showed up for Wednesday’s debate was exactly the president who showed up in the Oval Office the last four years. He clearly lacked his opponent’s single-minded focus on jobs, jobs, jobs.
Luckily for him, his performance probably won’t hurt in one ex-battleground state, Pennsylvania, where Mr. Obama leads by a handy 10% or more. He can thank the shale energy revolution that many of his allies would like to stamp out.
Philadelphia, which gave 83% of its vote to Mr. Obama in 2008, is being reinvented as an energy hub to rival Houston. Three giant local refineries, closed or slated for closure, are springing back to life thanks to the Marcellus shale that underlies much of Pennsylvania.
The nearby Marcus Hook refinery, closed since February, will reopen as a processor of natural-gas liquids from the “wet” gas pouring forth thanks to Marcellus. The Sunoco refinery in South Philly will be converted to process Bakken crude from North Dakota using Marcellus gas as an energy source. In nearby Trainer, Pa., yet another refinery is being rescued by Delta Air Lines, to produce jet fuel using North Dakota crude.
Pipelines and port terminals, creating thousands of construction jobs, are being built to move Marcellus ethane and propane to the Gulf Coast and Europe. A new rail yard is being built along the Schuylkill River. Last year, the local Aker Philadelphia Shipyard was near closing. Then it landed a $400 million contract with Exxon Mobil to build two new tankers.
The payoff isn’t only jobs. A giant stimulus check has landed in the pockets of the state’s utility ratepayers, who saved an average of $3,000 per household in the last three years due to the superabundance of natural gas created by the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” When was the last time a new gas utility was formed in the crusty Northeast? Leatherstocking Gas Co. will soon begin bringing service to many residents of Susquehanna County for the first time.
Five years from now, the Philadelphia politicians who today continue to denounce fracking as an assault on Mother Earth will be trumpeting the city’s reinvention as a new energy capital. Count on it.
Last year, the Philadelphia City Council unanimously approved a resolution demanding a moratorium on drilling in the state, and Mayor Michael Nutter declined to show up at a local trade show of the Marcellus Shale Coalition. This year he showed up.
President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” argument applies in Philadelphia in ways that it might benefit Mr. Obama to notice.
Where to start? Two GOP legislators in Washington amended a Jones Act waiver bill to facilitate shipping by sea of Marcellus liquids to petrochemical plants in Texas and Louisiana. The Jones Act restricts trade between U.S. ports to ships built, flagged and manned by Americans. No existing gas-liquids tankers fit that description.
Pennsylvania’s GOP Gov. Tom Corbett teamed up with the Obama White House to lean on state and federal environmental regulators to allow the Sunoco project to use a previously acquired emissions credit. That ruling is now being challenged in court by a local clean-air group.
Mr. Corbett and the GOP-dominated legislature enacted a controversial law brushing aside local zoning control of drilling. To assuage the resulting bruises they included a “well-impact fee” that was anticipated to generate $185 million this year to be spread among towns, counties and statewide environmental projects. Actual haul: $206 million.
Mr. Corbett has also been notoriously free with a tax abatement and development grant. He peeled off $55 million in state money for the Delta and Sunoco projects. He chipped in $1.7 billion in tax favors for a huge Shell petrochemical refinery going up near Pittsburgh.
All this has made the governor an easy target for bloggers looking to fill their quotas with fulminations about “crony capitalism.” In the real world, the density and arbitrariness of the regulatory thicket means that, without buy-in from politicians, nothing is possible.
Wailing usefully if foolishly about planetary destruction and likening the shale developers to the robber barons of the 19th century, the opponents inadvertently illustrate the same point: This revolution would not be taking place if it couldn’t make itself acceptable in a democratic society. The fight goes on. Last month, Mr. Corbett took part in a town hall at the Philadelphia Art Museum. The show had to be concluded early when he couldn’t be heard over the shouts of protesters.
In America’s heavily-regulated, interest-group-congealed middle age, we can still surprise ourselves. We can still create industrial revolutions. New things can still happen here. But don’t underestimate the importance of persistence by some members of the political class to make sure other members of the political class don’t snuff out these embers before they have a chance to flame up.
Every four years we find ourselves writing a column making the same point: Any president, of any party, is only half-prepared for the job if he doesn’t understand that a big part of the job is protecting America’s economy from America’s bureaucracy.