In a debate with Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman this week, Dr. Mehmet Oz gushed about fracking’s economic potential in the state.
“I’ve been consistent,” he said. “Fracking has been demonstrated – it’s a very old technology – to be safe. It is a lifeline for this Commonwealth to be able to build wealth similar to what they’ve been able to achieve in other states.”
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But Oz, who’s facing Fetterman in the race for US Senate, didn’t always praise fracking, the method of oil and gas extraction that has made Pennsylvania the second-largest natural gas producer, after Texas.
As a syndicated health columnist, Oz called for a New York-style moratorium on fracking in Pennsylvania pending the results of a public health study. (The Oz campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story.)
Fetterman also has shifted his stance on fracking. In the debate, he said that he’d “always supported fracking.”
“I always believed that independence with our energy is critical, and we can’t be held, you know, ransom to somebody like Russia,” he said.
But in 2016, while running for Senate in the Democratic primary, he supported a moratorium on fracking until new regulations were brought on. (Later that year, they were signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf.)
In a Reddit comment that year, he called fracking “a stain on our state and natural resources” and said he’d signed Food and Water Watch’s pledge to end fracking. “I worry about the viability of getting a ban on fracking done when the industry is already so entrenched in Pennsylvania,” he said.
A campaign spokesman, Joe Calvello, said in an email: “John has not supported a fracking moratorium or ban since Pennsylvania instituted stronger environmental rules to protect public health. … John believes that we have to preserve the union way of life for the thousands of workers currently employed or supported by the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania.”
Fracking, as it often does in statewide races, has become an issue in the Oz-Fetterman showdown, which could determine control of the U.S. Senate for the next two years.
Each candidate has at one time opposed fracking. Now they both support it.
What Pennsylvanians want
The shifting views from Oz and Fetterman reflect the political realities candidates in Pennsylvania face, said Chris Borick, professor of political science and director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College.
“Pennsylvanians have had this really, really complex relationship with fracking,” Borick said. On the one hand, he said, most voters don’t want to ban it. A recent poll found that 48 percent of Pennsylvanians “support” or “strongly support” fracking, against 44 percent who “oppose” or “strongly oppose” it.
“On the other hand, Pennsylvanians have been really fairly consistent in wanting fracking to be monitored, regulated, taxed in ways that the state often has not,” Borick said.
Berwood Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin and Marshall College, said the issue is more tricky for Democrats like Fetterman. Many of their voters worry about fracking’s potential for groundwater pollution, and long-term health impacts for people who live near wells. But Fetterman is trying to build a coalition that includes voters the Democratic party has been losing for decades, he said.
“There are sizable numbers of particularly white working-class voters who feel strongly that fracking, that kind of energy development, is good for the economy,” Yost said. “He’s trying to appeal to people in rural communities (by) saying, ‘We’re going to do things that benefit you because the economy has changed in a way that’s harmed you.’”
Don Furko is one of the voters Fetterman is trying to court. He’s head of a United Steelworkers Local 1557 at the U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works near Pittsburgh.
Many workers at his plant — at least the vocal ones — are voting for Oz over issues like guns and abortion, Furko said. But he is voting for Fetterman, because he sees the former mayor of Braddock, Pa. as on the side of workers like those at his mill. Fetterman toured the plant a few years ago after a fire there caused pollution at the plant to spike for months. While many in the region have called for tighter controls at Furko’s plant, Fetterman has not. And as mayor of Braddock, Fetterman supported a plan for fracking at US Steel’s Edgar Thomson plant in the town.
“I think that Fetterman, his stance would be labor first before environment,” Furko said. “If he had the straddle the fence… the foot that he’s stepping with is going to be the one that’s with jobs.”
For voters, fracking is a background issue
Yost says fracking isn’t a top priority with most voters — issues like the economy and abortion are. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have an opinion about it. Outside a shopping center in the Pittsburgh suburb of West Mifflin, Carol Martin said she supports fracking.
“It creates a lot of jobs and keeps people working,” said Martin, 82.
Her husband John, also 82, will be voting for Oz. Carol says she’s not sure who she’ll vote for. Her top issues are the economy and the war in Ukraine. Fetterman’s changing views on fracking don’t bother her.
“He’s for it now? That’s fine. If he was against it, then, well, he changed his mind. A lot of them change their mind on a lot of things,” she said.
Andrea Webb, 67, of Pittsburgh, says she’s against fracking.
“Like my granddaughter tells me, ‘Save the planet, Nana — save the planet.’ And fracking is very harmful, especially to people’s water supply, underground water,” she said.
Even though Fetterman supports fracking, she’ll still vote for him. “I think he’s for it from an economic point of view,” she said.
But fracking is not a top issue for her. Webb’s top issue is the economy. She thinks the government should be doing more to help people with low incomes.
This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.