The timing of the transition is hard to pin down, in part because the energy industry has been undergoing rapid change in recent years. The United States was importing increasing amounts of oil and natural gas just 15 years ago when suddenly hydraulic fracturing produced a glut of both fuels and made the United States a large exporter.
Now electric cars are becoming increasingly popular, and the costs of wind and solar power are dropping rapidly. Coal, which was the dominant power fuel at the beginning of the century, is in deep decline, losing out to natural gas and renewables.
“The fact that oil and gas are 70 percent of the world’s energy means that you can’t change that on a dime,” said Jon Olson, chairman of the petroleum and geosystems engineering department at the University of Texas at Austin. “If we don’t manage the transition really well, we could end up with energy shortages and all kinds of disasters.”
That still leaves the enduring politics of oil and gas in places, like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas, that the Democrats would like to win but where tens of thousands of jobs are directly or indirectly linked to fossil fuel production or processing. One plant, being built by Royal Dutch Shell in Western Pennsylvania to produce plastics from a natural gas byproduct, is providing construction jobs for thousands of workers.
After watching the debate, Mike Belding, chairman of the Greene County Commission in Western Pennsylvania, said he was concerned about the economic consequences of a Biden presidency.
“Regionally, coal, natural gas and oil have been an economic and work force-driving industry over the past century,” he said in an email. “Newly developed technology, like fracking and cracker plant operations, have great potential to drive our economies for the next century.”
But the growth of oil and gas exploration in recent years has also angered some voters in Pennsylvania, who said it had not been an economic boon to many residents and criticized the industry’s environmental record.