Trump to spotlight Beaver County cracker plant during Western Pa. visit | TribLIVE.com
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Natasha Lindstrom

President Trump plans to spotlight the ethane cracker plant under construction in Beaver County as a welcome example of economic progress and job creation when he visits Western Pennsylvania on Tuesday afternoon.

Trump will discuss his administration’s efforts to bolster the manufacturing and energy sectors against the backdrop of one of the largest construction projects under way in the nation — Royal Dutch Shell’s multibillion-dollar ethane cracker plant in Potter Township, according to White House officials.

The president plans to tour the site of the Shell complex, then deliver a short speech focused on the economy and how to grow and sustain the nation’s competitive edge, senior administration officials said Monday.

Trump will be joined by U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler.

Not a campaign rally

Officials described the roughly three-hour scheduled stop — Trump’s 13th trip to Pennsylvania since campaigning for the presidency in 2016 and second this year — as an official White House visit, not a campaign trip.

But observers say Trump and his campaign team clearly recognize the importance of wooing voters in this state — and Western Pennsylvania, in particular — as the 2020 presidential election approaches.

“He looks at Pennsylvania as key to his re-election, along with Michigan and Wisconsin,” said Christopher Dolan, political science professor at Lebanon Valley College in Lebanon County. “That’s why he’s here and he’s touting economic achievements.”

In 2016, when Trump won Pennsylvania by just more than 44,000 votes, he became the first Republican presidential candidate to carry the state since George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Trump’s more likely to win over on-the-fence voters in struggling Rust Belt towns by focusing on the importance of jobs more so than issues such as immigration policy, Dolan said.

“If you’re in a small town in Western Pennsylvania, you’re frustrated,” Dolan said. “He’s saying that his signature achievement is developing jobs in areas of the country that he promised to return jobs to. … It’s part of a broader effort to showcase his economic accomplishments while emphasizing the political significance of Pennsylvania.”

During prior visits to the Pittsburgh region, Trump pledged to revive the coal and steel industries, “playing on the nostalgia” of people still grappling with the lingering impacts of steep population declines decades ago amid the mass shuttering of mills and factories. In Michigan, Trump expressed optimism for turning around the auto industry.

Environmentalists plan to protest

The Shell complex, which has been several years in the making and broke ground more than two years ago, now bustles with about 100 cranes and 4,500 construction workers along the Ohio River. The plant will use ethane from Marcellus and Utica shale reservoirs and process it into ethylene and polyethylene, the building blocks of plastic.

Plans call for hiring 600 permanent, full-time employees when the plant opens as soon as next year, with industry experts projecting hundreds of other jobs created by spin-off companies related to the plastics industry.

Skeptics of the plant’s projections question whether the region has enough skilled workers living in the region to fill the permanent jobs and how many hires might have to be recruited from other states. Environmental groups have said not enough is being done to mitigate the plant’s negative impacts on air quality, such as emitting as much carbon emissions as more than 400,000 vehicles, they claim.

Several such critics plan to protest Trump on Tuesday.

Air Force One is scheduled to touch down shortly after 1 p.m. at Pittsburgh International Airport in Moon Township. Trump’s motorcade will then head to the Shell complex to go on a tour, meet with Shell project officials and state and local dignitaries, and deliver brief remarks, officials said.

A few miles away, starting about 1:30 p.m., a loose coalition of environmental, public health, economic, labor and social justice activists plan to display their opposition to both the Trump administration and the Shell plant.

More than 100 people — including some traveling from West Virginia and Ohio — have signed up to march from Irvine Park near the Beaver County Courthouse to Beaver Greens Park. The protest’s organizers argue that the Shell plant is poised to “become the largest air polluter in Western Pennsylvania and take us back to the dark days of the smoke-filled skies of the 1940s.” They said the region demands “clean, sustainable union jobs, not the temporary construction jobs being carried out by out-of-town workers at the Shell plant.”

It’s unclear whether Trump will touch on noneconomic issues such as gun control during his scheduled remarks.

Trump initially was slated to visit the Shell plant Aug. 8. He postponed the trip following the back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.

Trump’s punitive trade tariffs, his racially inflammatory language and now a renewed national call for action on gun control have created internal pressure on the president and his staff. With his poll numbers stalled and his ability to rally the country questioned, he’s also being tested by an escalating trade war with China that may slow the economy amid rising tensions with both Iran and North Korea.

Trump fumed last week when negotiations in Shanghai broke down, and, against the advice of advisers, he slapped additional tariffs on China. The moves rattled the financial markets, which have been volatile for days, and have worried West Wing aides who fear a battle with Beijing could not only hurt Trump voters, including farmers at the mercy of China’s retaliatory tariffs, but could undermine the president’s best argument for reelection, a strong economy.

“Presidents generally will get too much credit when things go well and too much blame when they go poorly,” said Matthew Rousu, economics professor at Susquehanna University in Snyder County. “To the extent that de-regulations have helped the economy grow stronger, he should receive credit for that. To the extent that the trade war has harmed the country, he should deserve blame for that.”

After departing Pittsburgh, Trump plans to host a campaign-related rally Thursday in New Hampshire.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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