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'It has to be replaced': Trump seizes on Biden's oil industry comments. But will it work?

The former VP said at the final presidential debate that he would "transition" the economy away from fossil fuel.
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President Donald Trump's re-election campaign, eager for a debate moment that could jolt the closing days of the race, has targeted Joe Biden's comment that he would "transition" away from oil and pivot to renewable energy.

In post-debate statements, Trump's team sought to portray Biden's remark as a game-changing gaffe that could damage the former vice president's political fortunes in oil-producing states such as Pennsylvania, Texas and Oklahoma.

"This probably will put the nail in the coffin for Joe Biden in Pennsylvania," Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller told reporters Friday. "This is really devastating."

But it remained to be seen whether Biden's comment would move the political needle — particularly in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, where roughly 1.3 million mail-in and early in-person ballots have already been returned, according to the political data firm TargetSmart.

Biden leads Trump in Pennsylvania in most recent polls, including a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday that showed the former vice president with a 10-point advantage over the incumbent president.

Biden's climate platform calls for the U.S. to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. However, his plan does not propose a ban on fossil fuels. Instead, it focuses on technologies that can capture pollution from oil and other sources.

"I would transition away from the oil industry, yes," Biden said in the debate's final minutes, during a section about climate change. "The oil industry pollutes, significantly. It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time."

Trump immediately pounced on Biden's pledge, making direct appeals to a quartet of states the Republican carried in 2016.

"Basically, what he is saying is he is going to destroy the oil industry," Trump said. "Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania? Oklahoma? Ohio?"

Democratic strategists and pro-Biden operatives were quick to point out that another key plank of Biden's climate plan — ending federal subsidies for the oil and gas industry — is popular with voters.

"Before anybody gets excited about Trump going after Biden on energy, might look at some polling on subsidies for oil industry," Stuart Stevens, a Republican consultant who is now a staunch critic of Trump and the GOP, tweeted late Thursday.

In a November 2016 report, for instance, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University found that 62 percent of all registered voters supported eliminating all federal subsidies for the fossil fuel industry — including 70 percent of Democrats, 53 percent of independents and 54 percent of Republicans.

Claire McCaskill, the former Democratic senator from Missouri, appeared to downplay the political ramifications of Biden's comments in a post-debate interview with NBC News' Savannah Guthrie.

When asked whether Biden committed a major error, McCaskill replied: "He said 'transition,' and I think anybody who has actually studied climate knows that this is something the planet is going to have to do."

Leading climate scientists say tackling climate change requires the U.S. to drastically cut oil, gas and coal emissions — including phasing out most burning of fossil fuels.

In a survey conducted this year, the Pew Research Center found that 79 percent of survey respondents believed the U.S. should prioritize developing alternative energy sources, rather than expand the production of oil, coal and natural gas.

The survey found that those who held that view included 65 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, including a slim majority — 54 percent — of self-described conservative Republicans.

In a separate survey conducted this summer, Pew found that a majority of registered voters said climate change would be a very (42 percent) or somewhat (26 percent) important decision in deciding which candidate to back.

American oil consumption has been waning since 2005, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and the U.S. as a whole has been shifting its energy consumption away from oil for decades.

However, Trump allies and Republicans across the country moved quickly to play up Biden's comments, portraying them as a threat to wipe out blue-collar jobs — including in states across the Upper Midwest where Trump narrowly beat Hillary Clinton four years ago.

Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who defeated McCaskill in 2018, tweeted: "Biden is going to end USA energy independence & destroy the remaining blue collar jobs in this country so we can go back to being dependent on foreign oil and embroiled in endless Mideast wars. Great plan."

The chorus of criticism also included former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Wyoming GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, and Republican Govs. Tate Reeves of Mississippi and Greg Abbott of Texas.

Rich Lowry, the editor of the conservative magazine National Review, suggested in an interview with Guthrie and "NBC Nightly News" anchor Lester Holt that Biden's comment came as the candidate seemed to "fade" and grow "tired."

He went on to describe the oil comment as a "gift" to Trump that would likely be replayed many times in the days to come.

In the aftermath of the debate, it appeared at least some Democratic lawmakers in oil-centric states were mindful of the potential political fallout.

Rep. Kendra Horn, a freshman lawmaker who became the first Democrat to win Oklahoma's 5th Congressional District seat in 44 years, tweeted that she disagreed with Biden. (Horn is running for re-election this year in a race that Cook Political Report considers a toss-up.)

"We must stand up for our oil and gas industry. We need an all-of-the-above energy approach that's consumer friendly, values energy independence and protects OK jobs," Horn tweeted.

Joe Brettell, a political consultant who has previously worked for Republicans as well as the oil industry, told NBC News that the number of people employed by the oil and gas industry needs to be better understood.

"It's not just the names that you see at your gas station," Brettell said. "It's the guys on the rig. It's the guys driving the water truck. It's the helicopter pilots who fly those folks offshore."

In a statement, a powerful oil and gas industry trade group did not criticize Biden by name but insisted the business was not "going anywhere."

"Democrats, Republicans and Independents know that the U.S. natural gas and oil industry delivers affordable and reliable energy to American families and businesses and all over the world," American Petroleum Institute chief Mike Sommers said.

"We are proud of the grit, innovation and progress we've made so that Americans no longer have to choose between environmental progress and access to affordable, reliable and cleaner energy. And we aren't going anywhere.”

Meanwhile, some progressive groups struck a positive note on Biden's oil rhetoric. Ben Wessel, the executive director of NextGen America, a youth-focused progressive advocacy group, praised Biden's performance in the debate.

"I mean he's got a really strong climate plan and I think this is probably the first time many Americans have heard him talk about it," Wessel said. "He leaned in on clean energy and transitioning away from fossil fuels, including big oil.

He said he believes Biden's clean-energy message would help "rile the base," turn out young people, as well as persuade undecided voters.

"Good politics, good politician, good plan," he said. "I'm a happy camper."