Pennsylvania has emerged as one of the key swing states in the presidential election. And while natural gas drilling is near the bottom of a list of concerns for the state’s voters, fracking just keeps coming up.
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It got a surprising amount of air time during Wednesday’s vice presidential debate between Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris and Republican Vice President Mike Pence.
“They want to abolish fossil fuels and ban fracking,” Pence said.
“Joe Biden will not ban fracking, he’s been very clear about that,” countered Harris.
In fact, Joe Biden can’t actually ban fracking, at least not in Pennsylvania.
The technology that helped tap Pennsylvania’s deeply buried shale gas transformed some of the state’s quiet farm and forest communities over the past 12 years. It’s created good-paying jobs, and an influx of cash for people who lease their land to gas drillers. And that’s something President Trump likes to bring up, as at a recent rally at Harrisburg International Airport in Middletown.
“You’re a big fracker,” Trump told the crowd. “It’s a big business here, 900,000 jobs.”
Quick fact check here: That number is wrong. The state puts the figure at about 26,000 jobs in the oil and gas sector. That’s less than 1 percent of all jobs in the state.
It doesn’t even make the state’s top 50 list of employment sectors.
And even the industry claims a job figure of about 300,000, which is one-third of Trump’s number.
On his trips to Pennsylvania, he’s repeatedly accused his Democratic opponent Joe Biden of wanting to ban fracking.
“He wants to eradicate all the things that you’re doing, all the things that are bringing in so much money for your state, it’s a disgrace,” Trump told the crowd in Middletown. “Now he’s trying to say, well, I didn’t really mean that.”
Biden has fought back.
“I am not banning fracking,” he said at an event at Carnegie Mellon University at the end of August. “Let me say that again. I am not banning fracking. No matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me.”
The Democratic party’s progressive wing has pushed for a ban on fracking because of the environmental damage drilling caused in some areas, including Pennsylvania.
But a president cannot ban fracking on private land — only Congress can do that. And the vast majority of fracking in Pennsylvania takes place on private and state land. The state leases about 11 percent of its land — 251,233 acres — to gas drillers.
What Biden says he wants to do — as part of his larger plan to tackle climate change — is stop leasing any new oil and gas rights on federal land.
But Pennsylvania has very little federal land. The only place where federal leases exist are in the Allegheny National Forest, where there are three oil and gas leases that span about 855 acres.
What Voters Think
Despite the focus on fracking, it’s hard to find a voter who thinks it’s a big issue.
Erick Coolidge is a fifth-generation dairy farmer and has leased several hundred acres of his land to gas drillers.
“I’m in favor of this president for a lot of reasons,” he said.
But when asked if he’s heard anyone talking about fracking in this election, he said no — what he hears about is the debates over mail-in ballots.
Coolidge is also a Republican commissioner in Tioga County, a heavily drilled region in the north central part of the state that just lost an auto parts plant that is a major employer in the region.
He said there was a lot of talk during the Democratic primary about banning fracking, but he said that’s been toned down.
“It isn’t about a singular group, isn’t about a Republican or a Democrat,” he said. “It’s about what are we doing to manage the resources we have? We need do it constructively and we do it in a manner that benefits all. Not a group, not special interests, not the left or not the right.”
If Biden wins, Coolidge hopes any efforts to tackle climate change will be balanced with strong support for the industry.
“The activity that’s here still generates income and revenue from truck driving to various benefits to the hotels, motels, restaurants,” he said.
But for now, he’s not worried about what Biden might mean for fracking in Pennsylvania. It has bipartisan support in the legislature as well as from the current and past governors of both parties.
Fracking is also not a top issue for many Democratic voters — including those worried about environmental impacts.
“I’m voting for Biden for so many reasons,” Philadelphia resident Shari Hersh said. “Even though he wasn’t my pick in the primaries.”
Hersh is a Democrat who supports a fracking ban and worries about the impact it has had on drinking water. She supports a Green New Deal, which Biden has not completely endorsed. Still, she’ll vote for him enthusiastically, “because I think Trump is so utterly and completely destructive.”
Fracking a Wedge Issue?
In fact, poll after poll show the top issues for Pennsylvania voters are health care, coronavirus, and the economy. So why is President Trump making all the fuss over fracking?
“He’s focused on it because he’s making it a wedge issue among rural voters,” said Democratic political consultant Neil Oxman.
Oxman said Trump needs to replicate what he did in the state’s rural counties four years ago, when he used coal mining jobs as a wedge issue, even though there were only about 5,000 people working as coal miners in Pennsylvania at the time.
“Wedge issues are those things that people are clearly yes or no about,” he said. “And with fracking you’re either for it or against it. So that’s why he uses it, he uses it as a way to define him and define Biden. He does it about manufacturing in Ohio, he does it about coal in West Virginia or Kentucky, he does it about abortion in the South. Trump is very good about bringing up wedge issues and trying to make the campaign about wedge issues.”
Oxman said it’s unclear if Trump’s fracking focus will work in his favor.
Polls show a large split between the state’s rural and urban voters when it comes to fracking. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh residents overwhelmingly oppose fracking. But it has strong support in rural areas.
Political analysts like Oxman say what really matters in this race may be turnout. And for that, it makes sense to try to drive that wedge.
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.