President Barack Obama's early valentine to the natural gas industry in his State of the Union address Tuesday spurred activist anxiety and industry infatuation, but the lengthy section dedicated to domestic energy was also an appeal to the millions of voters living above the Marcellus Shale formation.
Sure, the Middle Atlantic states were never specifically mentioned, but Mr. Obama's endorsement of the nation's shale gas particularly resonates in these swing states. Texas and its Barnett Shale region are not expected to tip Democratic anytime soon, and no candidate is looking at North Dakota's drilling boom and salivating for three electoral votes.
"There's no chance he wins the presidency without Pennsylvania," said Christopher Borick, a political scientist and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. "And he needs those middle-of-the-road voters who might be optimistic about shale gas."
It's a strategy that brings the Marcellus debate -- and the Marcellus region -- to the center of the 2012 election as the president courts voters seeking solutions to unemployment problems and energy dependence.
"We are the Saudi Arabia of natural gas," the president said Tuesday.
The speech injected the energy issue into the election in a way not seen since Texas Gov. Rick Perry dedicated his doomed candidacy to the issue -- even swinging by West Mifflin in October to call the region "the Saudi Arabia of coal."
Over the past week, as the president voiced his support for natural gas vehicles and offshore development, the drilling industry has found itself aligned with an unlikely, high-profile ally.
"You simply can't buy that kind of good public relations," Mr. Borick said.
The president was barely out of the Capitol building Tuesday night before the Marcellus Shale Coalition lobbying group issued a statement, saying, "We are encouraged that President Obama recognizes the tremendous energy security, environmental and economic benefits associated with job-creating American shale gas development."
The group plans a member field trip to Washington, D.C., in March to meet with the state's congressional delegation and other lawmakers working on shale legislation. The trip has been planned for weeks, but Steve Forde, vice president of policy and communications, said the president's speech added a sense of urgency.
"This gave us a little more additional momentum," Mr. Forde said. "It will give us an opportunity to meet with more senior and key officials."
And Energy in Depth, a pro-industry group in Washington, celebrated what it said was the shale rock's first State of the Union shoutout since forming two billion years ago.
"Well, it had to happen eventually," the group said in a blog post Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama continued his post-speech push, calling in Nevada Thursday for new tax incentives for companies converting their fleets to natural gas.
That plan has drawn Republican backlash in Washington but has precedent in Pennsylvania, where House Republicans introduced legislation that subsidizes the cost of fleet conversion for agencies such as the Port Authority of Allegheny County.
Mr. Obama's nod to Pennsylvania and its shale industry may appear to be a good bet because a majority of its residents support drilling to some degree.
Statewide, 50 percent of Pennsylvanians said shale gas will provide more long-term benefits than problems, while 32 percent saw it the other way, according to a November poll conducted by Mr. Borick and Barry Rabe at the University of Michigan.
Mr. Obama finds himself in a balancing act, trying to tout the energy jobs that some see as necessary for economic recovery without alienating the liberal base whose turnout helped him win the White House four years ago.
Many environmentalists were encouraged by the administration's decision earlier this month to block construction of the planned Keystone XL pipeline, an oil thruway from Canada that critics said would threaten Midwestern water supplies.
That balancing act might explain the president's call Tuesday for companies to disclose the chemicals used in the controversial hydraulic fracturing stage of the drilling process -- a popular issue but also an olive branch for voters and advocates closely following the issue.
"If I'm sitting there and don't know about shale, that goes right over my head," Mr. Borick said. "That was directed to those invested in the issue."
An overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians said they don't buy an industry argument that the makeup of drilling chemicals is a trade secret, according to Mr. Borick's poll. About 91 percent said the public has a right to know the chemicals being injected underground during the drilling process.
"That's low-hanging fruit for him," Mr. Borick said.
It's unlikely the environmentalist base that helped to send Mr. Obama to Washington with high hopes would jump party and vote for a Republican because of the president's overall support for drilling, Mr. Borick said, but dampened enthusiasm could keep some at home on Nov. 6.
"And not only are they voters, but they tend to mobilize," he said.
By comparison, the shale plays have seen little attention so far from the GOP candidates. That could be because no states with major drilling operations have a primary until March 6, when Alaska, North Dakota, Ohio and Oklahoma will vote as part of the Super Tuesday sweep.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney did stumble over the words "Marcellus Shale" in one debate, and he called for its development in a October 2011 editorial. And, in a separate round-table discussion, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum tussled with Mr. Perry over whose state held greater reserves.
The State of the Union cheerleading isn't likely to "open the spigot" of campaign donations from drillers to the Democratic president, but it doesn't hurt, Mr. Borick said.
"They're more likely to hedge now," he said. "They'll give to both sides."
Erich Schwartzel: email@example.com or 412-263-1455. First Published January 29, 2012 5:00 AM