In Crucial Pennsylvania, Democrats Worry a Fracking Ban Could Sink Them

Source: By Lisa Friedman and Shane Goldmacher, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, January 28, 2020

A Shell facility known as “the cracker” under construction in Monaca, Pa.
Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

PITTSBURGH — Though they are both Democrats, John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, and Bill Peduto, this city’s mayor, have their differences on the environment.

Mr. Fetterman, who toppled an incumbent Democrat in 2018 from the left, nevertheless calls Pennsylvania “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas” and sees extracting and taxing gas as critical to the state’s economy and the “union way of life.” Mr. Peduto lobbied unsuccessfully against a local petrochemical plant and is steering his once-struggling steel town to be independent of fossil fuels within 15 years.

But they agree on one thing: a pledge to ban all hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, could jeopardize any presidential candidate’s chances of winning this most critical of battleground states — and thus the presidency itself. So as Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren woo young environmental voters with a national fracking ban, these two Democrats are uneasy.

“In Pennsylvania, you’re talking hundreds of thousands of related jobs that would be — they would be unemployed overnight,” said Mr. Fetterman, who endorsed Mr. Sanders in 2016 before Donald J. Trump won his state, pop. 12.8 million, by just over 44,000 votes. “Pennsylvania is a margin play,” he added. “And an outright ban on fracking isn’t a margin play.”

Mr. Peduto said “the Warren-Sanders, ban-all-fracking-right-now” position would “absolutely devastate communities throughout the Rust Belt” and pit environmentalists against workers at a time when Democrats need both.

“If a candidate comes into this state and tries to sell that policy, they’re going to have a hard time winning,” he said.

Climate change has consistently polled as one of the top issues for Democratic primary voters, propelling Senators Sanders and Warren leftward even as the specific politics of fracking have gotten little airing. While Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren push a nationwide fracking ban, other leading Democrats — Joseph R. Biden Jr., Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Michael R. Bloomberg — have held back, calling instead for tighter regulations, a ban on new oil and gas drilling leases on federal lands, and a transition away from natural gas over time.

In critical pockets of the country, perhaps none more so than Pennsylvania, the issue of fracking could become vital in the general election, according to union leaders, Democratic politicians and Republican strategists. Potential battleground states where Democrats nurse dreams of winning, like Ohio and Texas, are hotbeds of natural gas — Texas has 137,000 natural gas wells — and Mr. Trump has signaled he hopes for a Republican comeback in New Mexico, another fracking state.

Mr. Trump has made plain that his unabashed advocacy for oil and gas development will be central to his re-election, as he blasts Democrats as “anti-energy zealots.” And Democrats like Mr. Peduto and Mr. Fetterman take him seriously. Fresh for both are the wounds of 2016, when Hillary Clinton was sharply criticized for her line about putting coal miners and companies “out of business” even though, at the time, she also spoke of creating new economic opportunities for coal workers.

In some ways, the fracking ban is indicative of the entire political bet undergirding the candidacies of Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren that the 2020 campaign will not be won by appeals to the narrow interests of traditional swing voters but through the mass mobilization of an energized electorate.

Mr. Trump will demagogue on energy regardless of the Democrats’ positions, they argue; better to inspire young voters and others impassioned to tackle climate change, especially in cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, than to worry about isolated voters in Western Pennsylvania’s fracking country. “Dream big, fight hard,” as Ms. Warren’s slogan goes.

“It goes to the heart of the debate that we’re seeing within the Democratic Party right now, which is the appetite among progressives and the left for an agenda that remains unpalatable to swing voters in the states that determine the Electoral College,” said Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report.

A November poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Cook Political Report found that only 39 percent of Pennsylvania swing voters saw a fracking ban as a good idea, even as nearly 7 in 10 of those same voters said they supported the idea of a “Green New Deal” for the environment.

Ashleigh Deemer, deputy director of PennEnvironment, which supports a ban, is unmoved by the low support for a full ban. “The model is changing,” she said. “Everything we know about how to win a campaign is changing.”

‘People in the Rust Belt are being sold false hope’

Driving through downtown Monaca, Pa., it is hard to imagine cars backed up past the Shear Utopia hair salon, window repair shops and lonely P-Dub’s Sports Bar and Grille. But State Representative Robert F. Matzie, a Democrat, insists a planned $4 million roundabout will be needed in a few years to deal with the bottleneck coming to State Route 51, “because of the cracker.”

“The cracker” is shorthand for a $6 billion Royal Dutch Shell petrochemical complex under construction in Beaver County, just northwest of Pittsburgh, that will convert ethane, a natural gas liquid fracked in Southwestern Pennsylvania, into pellets for plastic manufacturing. It gets its nickname from the chemical reaction known as cracking.

Born and raised in Western Pennsylvania during the decline of the steel industry, Mr. Matzie said he remembered finding fewer students in his class after each summer vacation because their parents got laid off and moved away. Now, handsome new townhomes are being erected with views of the construction site smokestacks.

A candidate who wants to ban hydraulic fracturing cannot win the state, he said plainly; his vote in the primary will most likely go to Mr. Biden.

“He’s quite frankly probably the only guy you could stand onstage with in Beaver County,” Mr. Matzie said.

In neighboring Washington County, which has the most fracking wells in the state, Republicans took control of the county commission for the first time in two decades last fall. The remaining Democratic commissioner, Larry Maggi, said he could not support a nominee who supported a ban.

Fracking triggers similar passions for environmental activists, who lament its immediate impact on the earth and what they say is its stalling of progress toward clean, renewable energy.

United Nations scientists have urged a deadline for achieving net-zero global emissions — that is, eliminating as much greenhouse gas pollution from the atmosphere as humans generate — by 2050. That goal will require an aggressive transition to wind, solar and other power sources that do not generate climate-warming carbon dioxide. Once viewed charitably as a “bridge” to a cleaner future because it produces far less carbon than coal or oil, natural gas has become a new front in the climate change fight.

Mr. Peduto said that was, in part, why he has opposed the cracker plant. “The people in the Rust Belt are being sold false hope of, ‘Just sacrifice your land and your air and your water one more time and we will provide you with all of these jobs,’” he said.

Yet he had a warning for national Democrats. “This presidential race comes down to about ten states,” he said. “And if you are trying to pass universal bans, it will never happen.”

The numbers are not that conclusive. In 2016, Mr. Trump outpaced Mrs. Clinton by a combined 40,700 votes in Washington and Beaver Counties — almost double the margin that Mitt Romney secured over Barack Obama four years earlier. And Democrats could fall further. Mr. Trump won those two counties by 60 percent and 57 percent — a lower margin than more rural parts of the state.

But there is room for Democratic gain in the cities and suburbs, especially around Philadelphia. Mrs. Clinton flipped one county in that area, Chester, carrying it by more than 25,000 votes even as Mr. Obama lost it in 2012. And suburban gains in 2018 swept Democrats to power in House seats all through Greater Philadelphia.

Even the economic argument is not simple. Pennsylvania boasts more than 90,000 jobs in wind, solar, energy efficiency and other clean technologies. By contrast, about 20,000 people are employed directly in oil and gas jobs, according to 2016 figures from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, though the industry says it supports more than 350,000 related jobs in the state.

‘Don’t vote, or vote for the other guy’

Union leaders meeting for lunch one recent afternoon at an Italian restaurant on the outskirts of Pittsburgh said they could not afford to be dismissive of jobs like the ones constructing the cracker plant, where wages, pensions and benefits can run into the six figures.

“At the end of the day, if I don’t have a job, if I don’t have health care, if I can’t take care of my family, it doesn’t matter if we have global peace and gun control and everything else,” said Jeff Nobers, executive director of the Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania.

“This is one of the most robust economies in the country,” Mr. Nobers added, “and it’s mostly fueled by, yeah, the gas industry, the burgeoning petrochemical industry, manufacturing. And you have politicians that say, no, we don’t need this because there’s 200 people working for Google in East Liberty,” referring to a shining commercial area of Pittsburgh.

Four of the labor leaders, all Democrats who said they supported Mrs. Clinton in 2016, said they would most likely sit out the 2020 election if Mr. Sanders or Ms. Warren were the nominee.

“If we end up with a Democratic candidate that supports a fracking ban, I’m going to tell my members that they either don’t vote or vote for the other guy,” said James T. Kunz Jr., business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers.

A fifth labor leader, a registered Democrat, said he had voted for Mr. Trump and that he intended to do so again.

Environmental activists say that as voters learn more about climate change and the consequences of fracking, which has been linked to earthquakes and contaminated drinking water, they will embrace broader bans on oil and gas development. Besides, some say, regardless of the nominee’s position, Mr. Trump will bludgeon Democrats anyway.

He has already started. “Virtually every leading Democrat has pledged to entirely eliminate American production of oil, clean coal, natural gas,” Mr. Trump said, incorrectly, at a rally in Hershey, Pa., in December.

Republicans say they believe they have a weapon against Mr. Biden in his reply at last month’s debate. When asked if he would sacrifice some oil and gas jobs for a greener economy he said, “The answer is yes.”

Mark Dixon, a documentary filmmaker and environmental activist from Pittsburgh, said hearing the liberal candidates’ call for a fracking ban was an “extraordinary moment.”

“I was overjoyed and stunned that the conversation had moved that far that fast,” Mr. Dixon said.

He viewed Mr. Biden’s dismissal of an anti-fracking environmentalist in December as “a slap in the face.” In the exchange posted online by the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate change advocacy group, Mr. Biden told the activist, “Well, you ought to vote for someone else.”

Mr. Fetterman, the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor, is no moderate. Mr. Sanders campaigned for him in 2018. His wife, who came to America as an undocumented immigrant, recently endorsed Ms. Warren.

But while he insisted that every major Democrat could carry Pennsylvania, he sounded especially bullish on Mr. Biden. “Being completely neutral, Joe Biden would be all but impossible for Trump to beat,” he said.