Why the national media is obsessed with fracking in Southwestern Pennsylvania — and what it gets wrong

The focus on fracking may not reflect the reality of voter sentiments, as the industry’s growth has slowed and voters prioritize others issues.

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A Seneca Resources fracking operation. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

A Seneca Resources fracking operation. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

At the end of Thursday’s debate, President Donald Trump saw an opening. Trump, who has been trailing in the polls, called out former Vice President Joe Biden for saying, “I would transition away from the oil industry, yes.”

“Basically, what he is saying is he is going to destroy the oil industry,” Trump said. “Will you remember that Texas? Pennsylvania? Oklahoma? Ohio?”

All of those states are oil and gas producers, but Pennsylvania with its fracking represents the biggest electoral prize of the group. “Pennsylvania is by far the likeliest state to provide either President Trump or Joe Biden with the decisive vote in the Electoral College,” FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich wrote. The Economist gives Pennsylvania a 27% chance of being the tipping-point state, nearly twice as likely as the next most crucial state, Florida. 

In the first debate, Trump accused Biden of planning to ban fracking in Pennsylvania. Biden has reiterated that he would only ban it on federal lands. There is little fracking on federal lands in the state.

The emphasis on fracking by the campaigns mirrors reporting in the national media about Western and Southwestern Pennsylvania. The New York Times interviewed building trade union leaders in January, who said they would have trouble supporting a candidate like Bernie Sanders, who proposed a fracking ban. 

The national media has continued to make fracking central to stories about how the region will vote. For instance, in July, Politico reported that Biden’s campaign had a difficult balancing act to prove to voters that it still supported fracking, after coming out with an expensive new climate change plan. And The Wall Street Journal wrote that Trump’s support of fracking had cemented the support of many voters in Southwestern Pennsylvania. 

A speech by President Donald Trump in Downtown Pittsburgh in October 23, 2019. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

A speech by President Donald Trump in Downtown Pittsburgh on Oct. 23, 2019. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

But some local academics, organizers, pollsters and politicians say that the national media’s emphasis on fracking may not be justified this year. 

Fracking’s boom has receded, and the number of jobs it brings is dwarfed by other industries and by proposals to bring clean energy into the region. Biden has voiced enough support for fracking to neutralize the issue, they said, and the media’s focus on it indicates they’ve overlooked some of the issues that local residents care about more, which could be the real determinants in how they vote. 

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who was central to the New York Times story in January, has since told reporters that fracking is no longer a key issue in Southwestern Pennsylvania — but reporters keep asking him about it.

“I don’t know why it keeps coming up,” he told PublicSource last week. “It baffles me that it would be the deciding factor for any bloc of voters at this point.”

Fetterman said that Trump’s large margins in rural Pennsylvania in 2016 are what carried the state and are his only path to victory again. But instead of fracking, he said, the coronavirus, the broader economy and the country’s “racial reckoning” have become more important issues for voters. 

“It’s a critical issue for Pennsylvania, but not in this election under these circumstances,” he said. “I couldn’t be more clear. The world literally spun off its axis with the pandemic.”

What the data shows

Terry Madonna, the director of the Center of Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, has been polling the state since 1992. COVID-19 and unemployment were some of the largest issues in this year’s poll, but “zero percent” said energy issues or gas prices were their chief concern.

Madonna said he doesn’t doubt that some voters in Southwestern Pennsylvania care about the issue, but his polling doesn’t look at issue concerns by region. “Based on all the other evidence we have, there isn’t any doubt among a select group of voters out there” care about it. “I don’t know how many.” 

Christopher Briem, an economist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research, said that the private union members frequently highlighted in national stories are an increasingly small portion of the population, not unlike union membership nationwide. But because of the long history of union membership here, he said retired union workers could play an outsized political role.

Fracking did create an economic boom in the region 10 years ago, he said, but it also displaced many coal and nuclear jobs, and the employment bump has since passed. “The jobs it has generated have slowed down as you would expect as industries mature,” he said. “I think a lot of folks in Pennsylvania still think we’re in that high-growth phase.”

fracking operation. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

A control panel at a Seneca Resources fracking operation. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

Briem doesn’t think many voters would change their minds if you took fracking out of the equation and points to a New York Times article from 2006 as another possible explanation of why union voters have become more conservative. In the article, residents of Altoona expressed frustration at the country’s immigration policies, despite the area not having much immigration. And that was happening before fracking even ramped up here, he said.

David Spigelmyer, the president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition who is quoted in several national media stories, declined an interview with PublicSource but sent a statement by email that claimed fracking is supported by a majority of voters. He cited a study by the American Petroleum Institute that says the industry supports nearly 500,000 jobs in the state. State figures, however, show there are about 26,000 jobs in Pennsylvania. 

Spigelmyer wrote that “extreme policies seeking to ban hydraulic fracturing would move our country backward, jeopardize significant environmental gains and put millions of Americans out of work at a time when jobs and economic opportunity are most needed.”

Lara Putnam, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh who studies small political movements, said the national media often interviews members of the building trades unions, which aren’t representative of the whole region.

“The membership of the building trades unions looks more like the demographics of folks who have been leaving the Democratic Party for the last 30 years in Southwestern Pennsylvania over multiple issues, including things like...the racial and gender coordinates” of the Democratic Party’s priorities. 

Putnam said the region now supports many more jobs in health care, and employees in that industry “dwarf the number of people in the building trades, much less fracking in particular.”  Many of these nurses and home health-care aides make less money, have less organizing power and are more diverse than the typical union members interviewed for national articles, she said. 

Lara Putnam, professor of History, at the University of Pittsburgh. (Courtesy photo)

Lara Putnam, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. (Courtesy photo)

So Putnam thinks that fracking is often an issue that stands in for a lot of other issues that voters care about. “So for some old-line labor union folks who have largely white male membership, getting decent wages in sectors that have been unionized for a long time and where union rights are well established, fracking stands in for the way of life that they want to continue.”

The national media may be behind the curve for another reason, Putnam said. She has increasingly heard residents in rural areas complain that they are not receiving royalty payments for fracking on their land anymore, as the price of natural gas has fallen and new investments have dried up. The media could be missing this issue, she said, because landowners often have individual contracts with fracking companies that make them difficult to track.

The political center of gravity in the state is moving toward suburban women, who in 2018 voted for Democrats in larger numbers than ever before, she said. But even for these women, who often care more about the environmental impact of fracking than the economic, fracking sometimes plays a symbolically important role. 

“Even if I, Jane Voter, would be happy if fracking ended,” she said hypothetically, “I’d be suspicious of any politician who could come down here and talk that way and seems so dismissive of people like us here.” 

Michaël Aklin, associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Photo)

Michaël Aklin, associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Photo)

Michaël Aklin, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh who studies energy transitions, said that many of the stories in the national media are based on the mistaken belief that natural gas could nearly supplant the coal industry in the region. But natural gas employs fewer workers, and its growth phase didn’t last as long, he said, so it hasn’t had the outsized cultural impact that coal work did for generations.

One of the reasons support for natural gas persists, he said, is that there isn’t really an alternative economic vision for the rural parts of the region. So even if some people don’t love natural gas, they support it because it might mean a bit more money flowing in. But “in the end, there are very few people who benefit from fracking directly and indirectly.”

An alternative vision

Veronica Coptis, the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Coalfield Justice, has been texting and calling thousands of residents of Washington and Greene counties this year, trying to encourage them to vote. Those are counties that went for Trump by 25% and 40% margins, respectively, in 2016. While there are many Trump yard signs out again this election, she said many of the younger voters they’ve reached out to, in particular, are disenchanted with both candidates. About half said they won’t be voting for anyone.

Most of the people her group talks to are already working in low-paying service jobs. They’ve seen the decline of the fossil fuel industry written on the wall and don’t expect it to outlive them. She said both candidates seem to be “missing the boat” on what voters want to hear about the future. 

“Every candidate seems to be looking at the next two to four years,” she said, “but younger folks are trying to make decisions now about whether they stay in their hometown or try to move somewhere else to start a career.”

Stephen Herzenberg, an economist and executive director of the independent Keystone Research Center, is trying to help create this vision as the co-director of Reimagine Appalachia, a four-state coalition focused on building an alternative economic vision for the region. The economics of fracking and renewable energy have flipped in the last 10 years, he said, and the national media hasn’t caught up.

A Monaca home covered with enough solar panels to provide 100 percent of its energy. (Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

A Monaca home covered with enough solar panels to provide 100% of its energy. (Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

“We’re not anti-fracking. Other people can fight fracking or oppose a petrochemical buildout. What we would say is that the numbers we’ve looked at and the market trends we’ve looked at, that’s not an economic development strategy for the long term,” he said, noting the relatively small number of fracking jobs and industry uncertainty.

To prevent the region from being left behind again, residents must accept this longer-term economic reality. He wants Appalachia to court the spoils of the new economy so it gets a piece of the pie. “If we’re not at the table, we’ll be on the menu.”

But can a politician win right now without showing some support for fracking? Jay Ting Walker, 30, is running an anti-fracking campaign as a Green Party candidate in District 23 — what he called the most Democratic district in the state. (Walker’s incumbent opponent, Democratic State Rep. Dan Frankel, didn’t respond to an email request for an interview.)

Jay Ting Walker, Green Party candidate for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.. (Courtesy photo)

Walker points to an August CBS/YouGov poll that showed 52% of state residents oppose fracking and, he said, the vast majority of the people he talks to in the city agree. And the victories of Sara Inamarato and Summer Lee, he said, show that an anti-fracking message can be a winning one. 

Ironically, Walker has also struggled to separate himself from Trump. Many voters, he said, think that a vote for his opponent is a vote for Biden at the top of the ticket, even though there is no Republican challenger in their race. Walker declined to say which candidate he supports because he doesn’t want to alienate Green Party or Democratic voters.

What will matter most?

Richard Stafford, a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, said “whether you like Donald Trump or not” is probably the defining issue of this race in Southwestern Pennsylvania — not fracking. 

If the national media wants to get it right, he said, the move against Trump in the suburbs of Philadelphia, as was seen in the 2018 elections, might overwhelm any residual movement toward Trump from 2016.

Yard signs are not a substitute for polls, which show Biden with around a 7-point lead in Pennsylvania, he said. But Stafford’s family owns property in Somerset County, where Trump won by 55% in 2016. There are still a lot more Trump signs there, he said, but there are also a few more Biden signs, compared to signs for Hillary Clinton in 2016. 

Recently, the national stories have become more skeptical. On Friday, The Washington Post wrote about how, even though local union leaders trust Biden on fracking, they are still struggling to convince their members. Two weeks ago, The New York Times returned to Pennsylvania and noted that Trump’s fracking attacks on Biden might be falling short. The story didn’t address most of the issues raised in this article but did quote several of the same union leaders they spoke to for their January story. PublicSource reached out to two of these members by email and phone but they didn’t respond.

“The day they can feed the United States economy energy wise with solar and wind, then thank God for it,” Kenneth Broadbent, the business manager of the Steamfitters Local 449, said in the Times story. “But they’re going to need natural gas, and Biden understands that.”

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

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