Will a Fracking Ban Doom Democrats in Pennsylvania?

Don’t frack this up? Photo: Gareth Fuller/WPA Pool/Getty Images

John Fetterman is no K-Street Democrat. For nearly 15 years, the prolifically tattooed former football player served as the proudly progressive mayor of the small, poverty-stricken town of Braddock, Pennsylvania. In 2016, he endorsed Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. Two years later, he mounted a successful primary challenge of his own, ousting the state’s incumbent lieutenant governor while campaigning on his support for single-payer health care and a $15 minimum wage.

But for the moment, Fetterman is, ostensibly, an undecided voter in the 2020 primary. Although his wife has endorsed Elizabeth Warren, the Keystone State’s lieutenant governor has yet to lend his stamp of approval to either of the race’s progressive candidates — and in a recent interview with the New York Times, he suggested that Joe Biden would have a better chance of carrying Pennsylvania than any of his rivals.

Fetterman’s reluctance to vouch for the electability of Sanders or Warren in his home state seems to derive from their stance on a single issue: a ban on all fracking in the United States. “In Pennsylvania, you’re talking hundreds of thousands of related jobs that would be — they would be unemployed overnight,” Fetterman told the Times. “Pennsylvania is a margin play. And an outright ban on fracking isn’t a margin play.”

The cause of these progressive Democrats’ disquiet isn’t hard to discern. In many long-suffering, postindustrial pockets of the state, natural-gas extraction has been a fount of economic revival. In Western Pennsylvania, fracking hasn’t just brought back jobs; it has brought back good, unionized — and, in some cases, six-figure — jobs that don’t require a college degree. In the towns surrounding the Shell plant that Mayor Peduto opposed, unemployment is at a decade low, and home values are soaring. Critically, fracking is ascendent in the very same parts of the Keystone State where the Democratic Party has been in decline. Improving the party’s margins in Western Pennsylvania in 2020 will require Democrats to leverage the resilient strength of organized labor in Rust Belt areas. Bernie Sanders’s own theory of change is premised on winning back the Democratic Party’s erstwhile postindustrial strongholds by reaffirming its commitment to worker power. But in fracking country, the union movement’s remnant has little taste for political revolution:

“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.

All this raises two questions for progressives: (1) Is a fracking ban as electorally hazardous as these Pennsylvania Democrats claim? And (2) do the substantive benefits of campaigning on such a ban outweigh the potential cost to the party’s support with trade unions in the Keystone State?

The first question is hard to answer with much confidence. On the one hand, a November poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation and Cook Political Report found that, while nearly 70 percent of self-identified swing voters in Pennsylvania approve of the Green New Deal, only 39 percent support a ban on fracking. On the other hand, a 2018 poll from Franklin & Marshall College found 55 percent of Pennsylvania voters saying that “the potential environmental risks of [natural gas] drilling outweigh the potential economic benefits.”

Considering the fact that environmentalists are more firmly rooted in the Democratic coalition than white, unionized blue-collar workers, however, it’s hard to believe that a fracking ban would gain more votes than it would lose.

This said, there is some cause for thinking that Democrats can afford the political costs of endorsing the position. Trump just barely eked out a 44,000-vote victory in the state in 2016. And Pennsylvania Democrats bounced back in 2018, posting landslide wins in the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races, and flipping several House districts. These triumphs were powered, in no small part, by the realignment of suburban areas away from the GOP. And in many of those regions, voters are more concerned about fracking’s impact on the quality of air and water than they are smitten with the economic benefits of natural-gas extraction. What’s more, while the fossil-fuel industry is the top employer in certain corners of the state, about 70,000 more Pennsylvanians work in wind, solar, or other green industries than work in oil and gas. Given these facts — and multiple polls showing Warren and Sanders outpolling Trump in Pennsylvania — it seems quite possible for a progressive Democratic nominee to convince a majority of the state’s voters that they need not choose between a thriving economy and a fracking ban.

That said, even if the political costs of campaigning on a fracking ban aren’t certain to be fatal, they still might be worth avoiding. How to weigh the substantive benefits against the electoral risks is fundamentally subjective. But I’m skeptical that running on a fracking ban would do more substantive good than political harm — chiefly because the chances of actually passing a ban on all fracking into law are infinitesimal.

As president, Sanders or Warren would have the power to end new fossil-fuel leases on public land (until Trump-appointed judges stop them, anyway). But the vast majority of fracking in the U.S. is conducted on private land. Actually banning the extraction method would require an act of Congress. It is true that a Sanders or Warren administration could try to use executive authority to render fracking economically nonviable by pushing through draconian regulations. But unless such a policy was paired with Green New Deal–style legislation, it would ostensibly devastate many regional economies, while potentially risking coal’s revival. In other words: The only way to ban fracking in a just and effective manner would be to do so legislatively. And there is nowhere near enough support for a fracking ban in the U.S. Senate to make that policy legislatively actionable in the near future. Further, on an issue where opposition is rooted in various regions’ immediate, intraclass economic interests (as opposed to merely ideological misgivings), advocacy alone has little prospect of changing the Senate math in rapid fashion.

Of course, there is also some disagreement among climate hawks over whether a fracking ban is even a good idea. Although fracking has indisputably adverse environmental impacts on the areas where it is conducted, the consequences of the natural-gas boom for the climate have been more ambiguous. Since natural gas burns cleaner than coal — and has been displacing the latter in the power sector — fracking has played a role in driving down carbon emissions in the U.S. over the past decade. But natural-gas extraction also tends to leak methane into the atmosphere, which is roughly 30 times as potent of a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. Some heterodox environmentalists argue that the government should combat methane leaks with regulation — and strive to phase out natural gas over the long term — but tolerate it as a “bridge” fuel in the short run. But other climate hawks insist that such a gradual approach is neither adequate for averting unacceptable levels of warming, nor economically necessary. As Vox’s Umair Irfan recently reported:

The Rocky Mountain Institute estimates that clean energy is already competitive with new natural gas power plants, and by 2035, it will be cheaper to build new wind, solar, and storage projects than to continue running 90 percent of existing gas power plants.

And when it comes to limiting climate change, a key factor is time. Methane leaked from gas wells can stay in the atmosphere for a decade. Carbon dioxide from burning it can linger for a century. So it is imperative to ramp down greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. Yet every new natural gas power plant represents a decades-long commitment to continue using the fuel. That means gas plants will have to install carbon capture systems, which would add to their operating costs and worsen the business case further, or some poor investor is going to be left holding the bag.

“Not only is natural gas dangerous and destructive, it’s increasingly unnecessary,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “We do think there should be a national ban on fracking.”

But political realities seem to render all this moot. The next Democratic president will not have the unilateral authority, or congressional support, necessary to ban fracking. Running on the policy might help to mainstream the concept and shift the boundaries of America’s climate debate leftward. But influence on the discourse is a lot less valuable than control of the EPA. Come this summer, if Warren or Sanders is the Democratic nominee — and polling suggests the fracking ban is hurting them in Pennsylvania — they should probably triangulate on the issue, for the good of the planet.

Will a Fracking Ban Doom Democrats in Pennsylvania?