Pennsylvania Fracking Politics Are More Complicated Than They Seem

Thirty percent of Pennsylvanian Republicans say they want to ban fracking

By Molly Glick

October 28, 2020


Photo by AP Photo/Srakocic

With one week to go before Election Day, few states are as hotly contested as Pennsylvania. Political observers agree that the Keystone State will be the lynchpin for winning the Electoral College, and both presidential campaigns have poured tens of millions of dollars into the race there. As President Trump and former vice president Biden battle for votes in Pennsylvania, one environmental and public health issue has risen to the top of the contest: the future of gas fracking there. 

Trump has sought to use the issue to his advantage and keeps falsely claiming that a Biden administration would ban hydraulic fracking. The president may be lying, but he has nevertheless forced Biden into defensively clarifying that he would only prohibit the controversial oil and gas recovery technique on federal lands—and there are virtually no federal public lands in Pennsylvania.  

The fracking issue flared up again last Thursday during the final presidential debate, as Biden promised to end federal subsidies for fossil fuel companies and pledged to spur “a transition from the old industry,” invest in renewables like wind and solar power, and “move toward net-zero emissions.” All of which spurred yet another Trump demagogic distortion: “He is going to destroy the oil industry. Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that Pennsylvania, Oklahoma?” 

While some political observers have reflexively assumed that the issue will play best for Trump, the reality on the ground is more complicated. Pennsylvania voters’ opinions about fracking don’t split perfectly along ideological lines, and polling there has shown that a majority of Pennsylvanians support taking action on climate change—a trend that works in Biden’s favor. 

There is no consensus among Pennsylvania’s registered voters about the relative costs, benefits, and environmental and public health consequences of gas extraction. This reflects a broader trend in resource-rich states, says Michelle Lee, a PhD candidate at Indiana University who has researched energy policy and public opinion. Depending on a state’s economic history and energy regulations, voters often think beyond party lines and may instead organize themselves within ideological clusters that are based on risk tolerance. Lee found that while some people may seek out fracking’s economic benefits, others highlight the risks. In her December 2020 study of Colorado residents, nearly 40 percent of respondents wavered between the two poles. “It’s not about party lines,” Lee says. “People are smarter than that.... For fracking, they’re able to discern for themselves what they want and what’s good for them.” 

On the surface, Pennsylvania voters appear to have often contradictory opinions about fracking. According to a January 2020 poll, slightly more voters (48 percent) support shale drilling than oppose it (44 percent). But when the question was asked another way, pollsters found 48 percent of Pennsylvania voters favor a ban on hydraulic fracturing, while 39 percent oppose it. And more people say that the environmental risks of gas drilling are greater than the economic benefits, by 49 to 38 percent. This means that the risk-averse and ambivalent may stand a chance against pro-industry residents. An August poll by CBS showed that 52 percent of voters in the state oppose fracking. 

“In this region, energy is very intertwined with our economy,” says Veronica Coptis, executive director of the Pennsylvania environmental advocacy group Center for Coalfield Justice. “Our communities have been in economic hardship for decades and have been neglected by both political parties.… Folks are voting to figure out who’s the best option for them to keep food on the table.”

If so, that might also be good news for the Biden campaign. While the oil and gas sector is a significant employer in some rural parts of the state, it’s responsible for less than 1 percent of all jobs in Pennsylvania—or about 26,000 jobs in total. Meanwhile, the state’s solar industry is growing faster than the national average, and jobs in the solar generation sector increased by more than 8 percent between 2017 and 2019. The energy-efficiency sector is also a major employer in Pennsylvania, accounting for more than 70,000 jobs there. 

The ascent of renewable energy and energy-efficiency jobs may help explain Pennsylvanians’ strong support for taking action on climate change. A September 2020 poll by Climate Nexus found that around 70 percent of registered Pennsylvania voters back the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a multistate cap-and-trade program to reduce the power sector’s carbon dioxide emissions. Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat who aims to cut down Pennsylvania's carbon emissions in coming decades, urged the adoption of RGGI through an executive order last fall.

A majority of Pennsylvanians also support the idea of moving toward an entirely renewable-energy infrastructure. The Climate Nexus poll reported that 65 percent of respondents believe that the “primary goal of Pennsylvania’s energy policy should be to generate 100 percent of its electricity from clean-energy sources, like solar and wind.” And more than 60 percent of Pennsylvania voters say that they favor elected officials who champion clean energy over fossil fuels, according to an April 2020 poll by Susquehanna Polling & Research. Those numbers largely mirror national polls, which have found that two-thirds of voters support Biden’s energy and climate plans

The competitive race for Pennsylvania attorney general shows that pro-environment positions can be a political winner. Democratic incumbent Josh Shapiro has been a tough critic of the gas industry during his time in office. In June, Shapiro released a grand jury report that blasted the state’s Department of Environmental Protection for failing to protect residents from fracking hazards. The report was very blunt about mistakes made by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, says Jennifer Quinn, the legislative and political director of the Sierra Club’s Pennsylvania Chapter. “It was a rather scathing look at the industry,” Quinn says.  

At that time, Shapiro declared that state regulators need to do far more to address “the realities facing Pennsylvanians in the shadows of fracking drills.” Shapiro has a slight lead in the attorney general race, according to recent polling

Contrary to the political conventional wisdom—and the assumption of Trump and other Republicans—Pennsylvanians’ views about climate, energy, and fracking don’t split neatly along ideological or geographic lines. In recent years, several rural townships in Pennsylvania—including areas that Trump carried by wide margins in 2016—have passed local ordinances to more tightly regulate the gas industry. 

Rural Pennsylvania residents have also taken political action against fracking—for equally practical reasons. In Grant Township, residents were largely quiet when it came to energy extraction until they learned of an incoming fracking operation. Fearing that the operation could contaminate their groundwater, the town adopted a local charter that banned fracking wells. The January 2020 poll on Pennsylvania voter attitudes found that 30 percent of registered Republicans favor a ban on fracking

Veronica Coptis of Coalfield Justice says elected officials need to do more to assuage some voters’ fears that a transition away from fossil fuels will be an economic blow, and to illustrate how the transition can actually be an economic boon. If Pennsylvania joins RGGI, revenue from the cap-and-trade program could help fund the move toward renewables and avert a post-coal slump, Coptis says. 

“[Legislators] could move that money into just-transition initiatives where the coal plants will be shutting down,” she says. “RGGI actually creates a funding stream to deal with the economic hardships that many of these towns are going to face.”

And that would likely change the Pennsylvania politics around climate and energy for years to come—regardless of who wins this year’s election. 

Paid for by the Sierra Club Voter Education Fund, which seeks to raise key environmental issues in the discussions around elections and encourage the public to find out more about candidates’ positions on key environmental issues.