Prove your humanity

The race to fill Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat is one of the most closely-watched in the country. It will help determine the balance of power in Washington.

Climate policy is not getting much attention in the race, even as President Biden’s climate agenda has been held up by the current, split Senate.

StateImpact Pennsylvania’s Rachel McDevitt has this round-up of the candidates’ positions.

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HOST: The race to fill Pennsylvania’s open U-S Senate seat is one of the most closely-watched in the country. It will help determine the balance of power in Washington. Climate policy is not getting much attention in the race, even as President Biden’s climate agenda has been held up by the current, split Senate. StateImpact Pennsylvania’s Rachel McDevitt has this round-up of the candidates’ positions.

RACHEL MCDEVITT: For the first time in 2020, climate change was a major issue in the presidential race, especially on the Democratic side.

ARCHIVAL TAPE, RACHEL MADDOW: “Quickly, Vice President Biden, you were named checked there, I’d like to give you the chance to respond.”

JOE BIDEN: “Yeah, I was. I think it is the existential threat to humanity, it’s the number one issue.”

RM: But the topic is now taking a back seat to others that seem more pressing–such as Russia’s war with Ukraine and inflation. That’s even as scientists say the chances of avoiding catastrophic warming shrink with each passing day. In Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary, the candidates agree that climate change is a crisis. Malcolm Kenyatta, who is in his second term as a state representative, is framing himself as the environmental champion in the race. During a debate broadcast by PCN, he called for a ban on new drilling permits.

KENYATTA: “What I do support is actually making sure that we don’t give one cent more in tax breaks to big polluters and actually put our investments into clean technologies of the future.”

RM: Kenyatta wants to make sure the federal government pushes emission-free energy industries that will create union jobs. He also wants to address disparities caused by siting polluting plants near low income areas. Lt. Governor John Fetterman’s website mentions environmental justice and the need to address climate change, without details. His stance on fracking has changed over the years. When running for Senate in 2016, he said he supported a moratorium on new fracking. Now he supports expanding production in the short term.

FETTERMAN: “We need to have American energy. We need to transition to make investments to make green American energy on an ongoing basis and evolve towards that, but right now our energy security is paramount.”

RM: Western Pennsylvania Congressman Conor Lamb has said lawmakers need to maximize the benefits of natural gas for people who have been left behind by other industries. He supports looking to alternative energy sources long term, as well as an increase in drilling now to try to lower fuel prices for people, and to help allies in Europe.

LAMB: “You gotta realize that we drill for both oil and natural gas and both of those things have been taken off the world market in enormous quantities because of the war in Ukraine.” RM: Alex Khalil, a Jenkintown borough councilor, emphasizes environmental stewardship as fossil fuels continue to be used.

KHALIL: “If you get rid of the fracking, you get rid of oil, how are we going to manufacture and keep jobs in Pennsylvania.” RM: She’s also calling for all Americans to get royalty checks from extractive activity on public land. On the Republican side, candidates have rarely been challenged on climate change. During a forum in Erie, former hedge fund CEO Dave McCormick accused TV personality Mehmet Oz of being against fracking.

MCCORMICK: “You’ve argued for more regulation in fracking, you’ve made the case that there’s health defects from fracking and you’ve argued for a moratorium in Pennsylvania that’s like in New York–”

OZ: “I’m sorry that’s not true.”

RM: Oz has tried to show his support for fracking–like in this TikTok video he posted in March.

OZ: “So stop ignoring the science, and cast aside Biden’s woke energy agenda, which steals our jobs, increases inflation, and makes us dependent on hostile nations.”

RM: StateImpact sent a list of energy and climate-related questions to all 11 candidates. Of the four Democrats, Kenyatta and Khalil answered. Of the seven Republicans, only one responded. Philadelphia attorney George Bochetto says it’s in Pennsylvania’s interest to develop the natural gas industry to the greatest degree possible. He says he’d work to undo outdated policies that limit shipping between U-S ports, so liquefied natural gas could be transported more easily. On climate change, he says the U-S should put more pressure on countries like China and India to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

BOCHETTO: “We need to go beyond the Paris Agreements and the limitations of those and really bring pressure on some of these errant nations to step up and do a much better job.”

RM: The other republicans running are commentator Kathy Barnette, real estate developer Jeff Bartos, attorney Sean Gale, and Carla Sands–an investment company CEO and former ambassador to Denmark under President Donald Trump. Their campaign websites are short on energy policy details. Most say they support ‘energy independence.’ That’s a somewhat vague term. By measures of exports and imports, the U-S is already energy independent, but it still feels the effects of the global marketplace. Rachel McDevitt, StateImpact Pennsylvania.

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StateImpact sent a brief questionnaire to all the candidates to seek more details about their positions on energy and climate issues. Of the four Democratic candidates, Malcolm Kenyatta and Alex Khalil responded. Of the seven Republicans, only George Bochetto answered. Their responses are below. The candidates gave their answers verbally. The responses have been edited for clarity.

As a U.S. Senator, how would you help ensure the country meets its climate goals under the Paris Agreement?

George Bochetto: The Paris Agreements, I think, are important, but they can’t be looked at in isolation. I think we need to have a lot more pressure brought to bear on some of these other countries–China being one of them, India being another–who are just abjectly refusing to make any kind of reasonable steps to stop polluting our environment, stop emitting greenhouse gases. They’re just not participating in a civilized and advanced manner, which our globe desperately needs. So, we need to go beyond the Paris Agreements and the limitations of those and really bring pressure on some of these errant nations to step up and do a much better job.
Malcolm Kenyatta: We are in a moment right now where scientists are universally agreed that this is an emergency which requires intensive and serious policy commitment. As the United States, of course, we only account for 15% of all the CO2 emissions in the world. And so even if we do everything right, that won’t be enough. But here’s the reason we have to be first on some of these things: we lead not just by the power of our military and of our money, but it’s the power of our example. And when we think about developing nations, like India, for example, we have to be able to say to them, not only are we urging you to pull back on your emissions, but this is what we are doing as well to meet the moment. The failure to pass the Build Back Better plan is a big step backwards in terms of actually meeting what’s outlined in the Paris Agreement. And I think we need to get that. We need to get that done. And I at least have been reading public reporting that there’s at least some conversations that are happening about pulling out the climate portions of that bill and trying to pass that as a standalone. And certainly that’s something that I would be supportive of. We need to make sure that the world sees that America is taking this seriously and that we’re putting our money where our mouth is. I think that we should be giving zero new tax breaks and incentives to big polluters. I don’t think that that’s a worthy use of taxpayer dollars.
Alex Khalil: One of the ways that we have to do, is to convince communities that are most resistant to this change to a shift towards alternative energies. And so, we have to sit back and make sure that in the coal industry there is a just transition. And that doesn’t exist. The reason we’re not meeting our climate responsibilities is because we have we have people who, rightfully, are afraid to lose their jobs and their livelihoods. So, I believe that in those communities where we have the most resistance, where there’s coal, where we have abandoned coal mines, that we can sit back and start putting in projects there, long term projects, for example, geothermal systems. We can work with our European allies, we can ask them, say, ‘hey, you have a lot of great technology, whether it’s waste to energy, your geothermal systems which have converted coal mines to geothermal systems. How about helping us here in the United States? How about helping us in Pennsylvania?’ And as people, especially in the rural counties that are coal country, see that transition, that they are part of it, that there are great paying jobs, long term job, that their children are coming back to work in those jobs. And that their communities now are becoming whole again. You will see us meet that transition. Let’s work on making sure people today and tomorrow feel that there’s a place for them. And that is how we meet our commitment and climate goals under the Paris Agreement; by solving the issue of communities that are struggling for the coal transition.

What forms of energy should be encouraged to achieve national energy independence? How would you encourage them as a U.S. Senator?

Malcolm Kenyatta: We’re energy independent right now. America is a net exporter of energy. But we need to continue down a couple of paths. You heard me talk about wind. You heard me talk about solar. Geothermal is going to be, I think, something that we’re going to see really take off and that we have seen take off, certainly in other European allied countries, using that for heating in homes, which is using the energy in the middle of the earth to heat homes, which has been really innovative and cool. I think that there is room for nuclear. And, you know, I know that there people have been researching this for a long time of what do we do with the spent fuel and making sure we’re not having a Yukon Mountain situation? I’m here in Pennsylvania, and so that’s something we have to be leery of. But I think that that plays a role for us as well. And when we get better at storing energy from wind and solar, there are, you know, obviously batteries that that we’re using to store. But those are, again, going to get better over time. So I think that those are the four buckets that present a lot of opportunity for us. And on the fuel piece. Biofuel is yet again another area where you see these companies really looking at this. And that’s something I would want to see us double down on as well. A big part of what you do at the federal level is give out a lot of money with strings. And at the federal level, I would, first of all, oppose efforts to allow new drilling on federal lands. I think that that is a mistake. I would also be opposing any new tax breaks or incentives to big polluters across the board and would be looking at ways that we could advance legislation like the THRIVE Act, which I think is a great path forward that I know is supported by Majority Leader Schumer and others within the caucus. And I would be another vote for that bill.
Alex Khalil: Geothermal, I think is a big one, especially in Pennsylvania. I think it’s something that would be a game changer, especially for rural Pennsylvania, if if it does truly meet my understanding. I think we need to continue with nuclear. I think we need to continue to make sure that it is safe, that we find ways in which to properly store, and hopefully we really put more research into converting that waste into being reused for more nuclear energy. And we have gas. There’s no reason why we cannot really sit back and modernize a switch from fracking to something less toxic than fracking. Fracking is just one means of a gas extraction. There are others I’d like us to explore. I’d like us to make sure to hold these gas fracking companies accountable and make them list the chemicals that they’re injecting in our soil. They’re the only company I know that can inject whatever they want and not tell us what they’re injecting. So, I’m okay with gas as long as we can sit back and make sure that we use technologies to reduce emissions, to reduce the toxicity of the extraction process, to make sure that when these companies are coming in, whether it is mining or gas extraction, that they pay a bigger bond upfront so that any cleanup or remediation– there’s funds in there that we as communities are not responsible for paying. Of course, wind and solar have a great place. I’d like them to be either on Superfund sites or I’d like them to be on roofs throughout the country. What’s more important is that these products have to be made in the United States. We cannot fill American infrastructure with foreign-made goods so that essentially our our infrastructure becomes like these Amazon warehouses and other warehouses where they are just filled with foreign goods and Americans are just doing installation or just moving around goods. They need to be made in the United States. The parts, the steel, all of it needs to be made in the United States. So why not in Pennsylvania? And I believe very strongly that alternative energies belong here. We have all the elements. We just need to start making things here. I would find funding to get those projects going. I’m going to say much of my conversation will be with Pennsylvanians in Republican areas. As I’ve been going door to door and going into rural communities, I’m having conversations with Trump supporters. After they finish venting about, you know, the president, the former president, this president, hen then we start talking about issues. And hopefully solutions. So if I were to sit back and say to them, ‘hey, what about we put in the geothermal project here and you can start have a job and improve the economy here.’ I think you’re going to find a different answer there than ‘no way.’ We stop talking to the lobbyists, and we start talking to our constituents.
George Bochetto: Of course, it is in Pennsylvania’s interest to promote and exploit and develop, to the greatest degree possible, for natural gas and all of the energy resources that we have in this commonwealth, and particularly in the Marcellus shale and elsewhere. We also have, by the way, some very important minerals which are related or cousin products to energy, but from a purely energy point of view, we should be doing everything humanly possible to promote, exploit and produce more natural gas and to be able to ship it and pipe it to ports where our shipping can deliver it up and down the east coast to other states within the United States and also abroad, particularly to our NATO allies. There’s a lot of action points that need to take place. Let’s just talk about the shipping as one example. I mean, we need to change the Jones Act so that we don’t have these artificial barriers in the form of flags and the flagging of ships preventing us from shipping it to other states within our country. That’s just silly. And it’s an anachronism from a long time ago, and it’s high time that we change it. We also need specific policies that are designed to lower the entry barriers into the actual development of natural energy. The permitting process and the regulatory process now is stultifying, and we need to change that. We need to reduce that. We need to promote rather than discourage exploration and development. We need also to have a very, very strong policy of development of pipelines and what is necessary to develop the easements over real estate that are necessary to develop pipelines, to develop the technology to increase the safety of pipelines to the greatest extent possible.

What should the federal government do to help communities struggling as a result of long-term trends away from coal transition into today’s economy?

Alex Khalil: The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, I think, is a great idea. But [Gov. Wolf] should have gone to those communities in Indiana and other communities in Blair County and said, guess what? There’s the first $100 million–We’re going to sit back and have a project here in your community. There’s an initiative in Germany where they’re converting a coal power plant into a giant battery and they’ve kept on all the employees, made sure they’re getting trained so they are part of that transition. That’s what’s got to happen. You’ve got to show people the money. People have a right to be afraid, especially when there are limited jobs. I have been throughout rural Pennsylvania and whether it’s rural Pennsylvania or in North Philadelphia or Philadelphia, where jobs are limited and scarce, I know they’re frightened when they hear someone say, shut it down. Their kids are already fleeing and leaving. You just got to get out there. Yeah, Pennsylvanians vent. Let them vent. And then you vent. And then we come together with ideas. And so that’s what the federal government can do. Get out there, start talking to communities, start putting in projects like FDR did in communities that are about the next generation of energy. And then communities will be happy, especially when they start seeing young people coming back in their own kids coming back in.
George Bochetto: I think we need to make the investments in infrastructure that will allow those communities to thrive. One such infrastructure investment that we need, particularly in the rural coal counties and agricultural counties, we have to greatly expand the availability of Wi-Fi. Believe it or not, there are many counties in Pennsylvania, particularly the rural areas and the agricultural areas, that have woefully inadequate Wi-Fi coverage. And this prevents them from advancing on a technological level. We also need the infrastructure investments to get away from coal and to get those same communities a part of the process for liquid natural gas and the pipelines and shipping of it and development of it.
Malcolm Kenyatta: I always like to, whenever we talk about this, make it clear that these big polluters actually do not give a damn about the workers. And that is what has been so frustrating to me when you have this conversation. Big polluters, who are fine with things as they are right now, use workers as a shield as if they actually care about these workers. They don’t. They care about making money. When you had coal miners, still folks who are dying from complications around black lung, is it these big companies who are stepping up to take care of their workers? Hell, no, it’s not. It was Democrats who have constantly been banging the drum for how to protect folks’ health who are coming out of some of these industries where they really do put their health on the line, particularly our coal miners. And Pennsylvania is one of the epicenters for that. And so there have been some pieces of legislation that have dealt with getting benefits to folks who are suffering with black lung. But we certainly need to go a lot further because we know that cancers and bronchitis and other things that these workers might be suffering with are directly connected to the work that they did. And we can’t leave these workers holding the bag. And so, I have equally been aggressive about calling for severance packages when these companies want to go bankrupt. We saw that in Philadelphia when the PES plant went bankrupt. But I will tell you, all the big kahuna who are part of that, they’re just fine. But they are workers who had worked there for, you know, 10, 20 years, whose pensions have just basically vanished because now they’re bankrupt and so they don’t have to pay. And so Democrats have always been for standing up for those workers. And I would ask people to just really ask themselves this question: Who do they trust to stand up for them and their working family? Do they trust the CEO of a big oil or gas company, or do they trust a working guy from North Philadelphia who’s been endorsed by so many folks all across organized labor? I think that’s an easy choice.

What measures should the federal government take to protect communities from increasingly severe disasters, such as storms, flooding, fires, and heat waves?

George Bochetto: We still have a lot of communities that are in flood danger zones. And there has been over the years and the decades some relief provided to some of those communities. But there’s still a lot more that needs to be done from an infrastructure point of view. And, you know the infrastructure issue is, unfortunately, one that’s been highly politicized in the sense that the Biden Administration and those in the Democratic Party want to infiltrate or infect with all kinds of new green deal policies and rogue deals and spending programs that are not infrastructure. We need an infrastructure bill, and the bipartisan bill that ultimately was approved–this is a step in the right direction. But we need infrastructure bills that are purely infrastructure and that rely upon and resort to expert engineers who can tell us precisely what the engineering and infrastructure needs are in these communities and we need to allocate the money for it and begin to do that.
Malcolm Kenyatta: This is something that I know in Pennsylvania we know all too well. Sadly, you still have folks who are living in hotels after the massive flooding we saw in Montgomery County, for example. Pennsylvania farmland has suffered blow after blow in terms of massive, massive flooding leading to billions of dollars in damage every year. This is one of those opportunities for us to not just meet the climate crisis, but to also reimagine some of the safety net agencies that I think have not always done enough in terms of helping people rebuild equitably. There is a study from Rice University in partnership at the University of Pittsburgh that looked at FEMA and looked at folks who had suffered from extreme weather events, and as you might imagine, folks who were black and brown or who are poorer or more low income, they were less likely to be able to rebuild and ended up, of course, worse off than before that extreme weather. The opposite was true for folks who were more wealthy and in most cases were white. And so, we need to look at how FEMA operates and make sure we don’t see situations like we saw in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans. If you go down to the Ninth Ward, it still has never gotten back to where it was before Katrina. We cannot accept that folks who are already bearing the brunt of an upside-down economy, that those people are always left holding the bag. Because it’s communities where folks are poor, where folks are working, people that deal with most of the acute impacts of this crisis. When you think about air quality, when you measure, particulate matter in the air, when you think about water quality, you see a real pattern of certain communities being shafted again and again and again. Other communities are doing much better. And so, what I would be looking at in pushing FEMA in an oversight role is, first of all, I ask them, what do they need to do to do this better? I know that the Biden administration had a number of executive orders and this regard as well, but then holding them accountable to make sure we’re not just signing an order, but that that order is actually being implemented in a way that’s meeting the needs of people on the ground. And that’s one of the most important jobs you have as a legislators is have oversight.
Alex Khalil: Mitigation and remediation and modernization. We still have an obligation to make sure that our we have pure water, clean air, recreational use of our land. So as we are cleaning up our state, that brings about jobs. As we are improving our infrastructure and fixing and modernizing it so that it can withstand, the floods and the storms, we’re retrofitting the homes to make sure they can withstand these heat waves. We can provide grants to make sure homes can have air conditioning and cooling systems. Same thing for in the winter as it gets real severe. So we can sit back and at the federal government work with non-profits and with the states [help] homes that are suffering from blight, bring them up to withstand these storms, flooding and fires. We may have to move people away from flood zones, and I think that’s important. I think we really do have to move people away from flood zones. We’re going to pay for that by making sure that those who have caused this, in particular are oil companies who knew all about this climate change, are paying their fair share of taxes. They have the engineering smarts, they have the technical smarts. So, I would be going to the fossil fuel companies and saying, ‘let’s find solutions.’ We all have to be in the game here. I think what the federal government can do is invest in America, invest in our infrastructure, modernize it, make sure that we update our sewer systems, and work with communities so that we can be prepared for what awaits us. We have it in us. You know, we have FDR said we have nothing to fear but fear itself. And I believe that. I believe when we work together, we can solve our biggest and most and most compelling problems.

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.