Though it might not feel like it, the Democratic presidential race has only just begun. Nonetheless, many pundits and prognosticators are already focused on Pennsylvania, confidently predicting that Democrats who support a ban on fracking will lose the state, and hence the election, to Donald Trump. It’s a common refrain, but there is zero evidence to support it -- and plenty of evidence that Pennsylvania voters have backed anti-fracking candidates.
This talking point says that by supporting a ban on fracking, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren play right into Trump’s hands. The same pitch is even coming from Democrats like Lt. Governor John Fetterman. But this falls apart when you look at what actual voters say.
A recent Franklin & Marshall poll found that more Pennsylvania voters actually support a fracking ban than oppose the idea (48 to 39 percent). And in previous years, that same poll has shown that voters have dramatically shifted, with a solid majority saying the environmental costs of drilling outweigh the supposed economic benefits.
Of course, fossil fuel companies tout jobs when they talk about fracking’s importance to Pennsylvania. What they don’t tell you is that a relatively small number of Pennsylvanians work in the shale industry-- and that number is shrinking, thanks to the industry’s inability to turn a profit from gas drilling. Hundreds of drilling jobs were lost last year in the Pittsburgh area, and 2020 is not looking to be any more favorable, with very few new wells being drilled.
Polls are just one part of the story. The real question is whether this has been tested at the ballot box. It turns out that Pennsylvania voters are responding to anti-fracking candidates … by electing them. Progressive Democrats like Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato won seats in 2018 by speaking out against fracking’s toll on the health and safety of the communities they represent. The grassroots campaign against the Mariner East pipelines in Delaware and Chester Counties mobilized support for candidates like Danielle Friel Otten, who stood up to the industry. And last year, intense opposition to local fracking projects in the Pittsburgh suburbs flipped town councils, putting anti-fracking majorities in charge. In one case, anti-fracking candidates in Franklin Park won by turning precincts where Trump won handily and turning them blue.
The 2020 election is already showing that increasing numbers of voters want to see political leaders take serious action to combat the climate crisis. That’s one reason why groundbreaking policy ideas like the Green New Deal are so popular, especially with Democrats and independents. There are plenty of reasons to think that climate-minded voters are very likely to support candidates who speak out against fracking: After a decade of touting gas drilling as a bridge to clean, renewable energy, it is abundantly clear that fracking has only prolonged our addiction to fossil fuels. A new report from Food & Water Watch shows that a comprehensive accounting of the carbon dioxide and methane emissions linked to drilling and fracking shows that we are barely making progress in the fight to avert the worst effects of the climate disaster.
The decades-old paradigm pitting jobs vs. the environment needs to be upended for the 21st century. The present and future belong to building out a clean, renewable energy system that creates good-paying jobs in manufacturing, efficiency, and retrofitting while improving public health in communities that have shouldered the pollution burden linked to fossil fuels. There is every reason to believe Pennsylvania voters will reward candidates who prioritize this positive vision for our future.
Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of Food & Water Action, a national advocacy organization.