Shell's multi-billion dollar ethane cracker under construction in February, 2020. Photo: Reid R. Frazier
Democrats could field an anti-fracking candidate in 2020. Can they win in Pennsylvania?
Voters are split on the question of a fracking ban
Standing on the side of a road that hugs the Ohio River, Jeff Nobers stared across the water at a massive construction site: towering cranes, scaffolding, a maze of pipes.
On the site of what will be Shell’s multibillion-dollar petrochemical plant, 6,000 union workers are putting together an ethane cracker, which will turn a natural gas byproduct into plastic.
“Right now, the biggest trades here are the operating engineers and steamfitters, because a lot of the piping work is being done now,” said Nobers, executive director of the Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania, which includes many of the unions working on the site. “There’s a lot of overtime. So you have people making well over six figures.”
Nobers says if Democrats nominate someone who wants to ban fracking, they’d have a tough time winning over some of his members.
The union leaders he works with might not tell their rank-and-file members he works with who to vote for, he said. “But they would be very clear to say, ‘Look, if you vote for this person, this is what they stand for. And, you know, at the end of it, you know, this is your livelihood and the livelihoods of many others.’”
Presidential candidates Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have both said they want to move away from fossil fuels, and they support a ban on fracking for natural gas or oil. Though natural gas is pushing dirtier coal off the electric grid, scientists warn we need to phase out all carbon emissions from fossil fuels in the next few decades
And fracking can release the powerful greenhouse gas methane.
“While natural gas may burn cleaner than coal, the enormous explosion of fracking and the resulting release of methane presents a significant danger to our planet,” Sanders told a crowd in 2016.
Warren tweeted in September: “On my first day as president, I will sign an executive order that puts a total moratorium on all new fossil fuel leases for drilling offshore and on public lands. And I will ban fracking—everywhere.”
Experts doubt a president could simply ban fracking without congressional approval.
Ed Crooks, vice chair in the Americas for the energy research firm Wood Mackenzie, says a president might be able to restrict fracking on public lands, but probably not on private or state land, where most fracking takes place. Crooks says the talk is more rhetorical than anything.
“Talking about banning fracking is for Democrats a bit like bringing back coal was for President Trump,” Crooks said. President Trump hasn’t been able to revive the coal industry, “but by talking about bringing back coal, he was sending a signal. He was talking about his strategy and the direction of his policy.”
Some political observers think an anti-fracking message could hurt a candidate in Pennsylvania, where 30,000 people work in oil and gas, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and thousands more work in related industries.
“Do you lose some moderate Democrats or independents who have interest in the natural gas industry if you call for shutting it down?” said Chris Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College who’s studied public opinion on the topic. “I think the answer is probably ‘Yes.’”
Borick said a lot of people in the state are concerned about climate change and the environment, but he says other topics, like the economy, still rate as more important.
“I think the proven method, the method that is shown to be successful time and time again is to win moderate Democrats, moderate voters in the state,” Borick said.
Those voters include people like Kevin Kopac, who owns an insurance agency near the Shell chemical plant in Beaver County. A registered Democrat, Kopac twice voted for Obama before going for Trump in 2016.
He grew up in a union household in Beaver County. He says construction at the Shell plant has been good for the local economy.
“There’s always jobs around, but these are (jobs with) a lot higher wages than what Beaver County has been used to for the past 20, 30 years.”
Kopac’s undecided about this fall’s election but says if the Democratic nominee is anti-fracking, he would be less likely to vote for a Democrat. “For the simple fact that (fracking) affects our region. It creates a lot of jobs, for a lot of people.”
John Kubicar, a real estate agent in Washington County, says if Democrats nominate an anti-fracking candidate, it will hurt their chances in his county, which leads the state in shale gas wells. “There’s too many people that are in favor of it around these areas,” said Kubicar, a registered Democrat who voted for Trump and plans to do the same in November.
“When these wells go in, I have friends that have restaurants and bars in the area, they’re packed.”
But other voters might be fine with an anti-fracking candidate.
Recent polls find Pennsylvania voters are roughly split on whether to ban fracking.
A January Franklin & Marshall College poll found that 48 percent of Pennsylvania voters favored a ban on fracking, while 39 percent were opposed. A Morning Call/Muhlenberg College poll conducted in February found 42 percent of voters in the state opposed a fracking ban, with 38 percent in favor.
That same poll found Sanders leading Trump 49-46 percent and Warren tied with Trump 47-47 percent in hypothetical head-to-head matchups.
The Franklin & Marshall poll found support for a ban was strongest in the state’s two big cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Brianna Mims, a University of Pittsburgh student from suburban Philadelphia, said she’d like to vote for a candidate who’s against fracking.
“Because I am someone that really values the environment and I think anything we can to stop the way we’re torturing the environment is beneficial,” she said.
Gerald Medved said he’d be okay with an anti-fracking candidate. A retired union coalminer, Medved is a registered Democrat who voted Trump in 2016, a decision he now regrets. He says Trump’s been too divisive and hasn’t kept his promises on health care and trade.
His own experience with the gas industry has been mixed.
“I feel it’s some good. And a lot of bad. And the bad is we don’t really know.”
He says his groundwater was temporarily polluted when a gas company drilled a well near his house in Fayette County, along the West Virginia border.
“If they pollute this water, say, 20, 30 years down the road, how are we ever going to clean it up?” he said.
Medved’s views on fracking are also related to his views about climate change. He says he’s seen the climate changing with his own eyes.
“With fracking, I think you have to look at the scientists in the United States, the people that are saying there’s global warming. And figure. Do you want to do something about it now or wait until it’s too late?” Medved said.
Fracking might be one of the issues Pennsylvania voters weigh when they decide an election that could be close come November.
And with a president who embraces fossil fuels and has already visited the state 14 times, voters are sure to hear plenty about it.