To find out about the environmental views of candidates on the ballot in Allegheny County, PublicSource, a news outlet in Pittsburgh, and The Allegheny Front emailed 51 candidate a survey that asked six questions. Nineteen of them sent back responses. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple talked with environmental reporter, Oliver Morrison of PublicSource about the key takeaways.
Kara Holsopple: So let’s just dig into some of these questions. Question number one was, “Do you accept the scientific consensus that human-made emissions are driving climate change? Why or why not? And if yes, are we doing enough to address it?” A couple of the Libertarian candidates were skeptical about the science regarding the scope and severity of climate change, and the Libertarian candidate who did think it was a pressing problem said, maybe not surprisingly, that private industry should be addressing it. But what about the rest of the field?
Oliver Morrison: The consensus among all the Democrats and the Green Party candidates is that the science is reliable and we should be doing something about it.
The Green Party candidates have a really ambitious agenda. They want to put a lot of money into green energy; they want to limit fossil fuel use; they want to decentralize the grid so instead of big coal power plants you might have a big solar panel or some sort of wind turbine and that energy could fund the energy in your neighborhood; they want to tax the fossil fuel industry.
A lot of the Democrats also agreed with the science but tended to be a little bit less specific on exactly what they wanted to do to increase action on climate change.
LISTEN: “Where the Midterm Candidates Stand on Environmental Issues”
KH: One of the big regional questions is about Shell’s ethane cracker plant which is being built in Beaver County. And the question was, “What do you think will be more important for the long term health of the region: the jobs that will come from the shell ethane cracker plant or the air and water pollution stemming from his operations, and why?”
The Democrat running for state representative in the 16th district, Robert Matzie, said, ‘I disagree with the premise of the question. I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition and that sort of thinking has helped cloud the issue because both are possible.’
That seemed to be the party line for a lot of the Democrats running, but not all. What were some of the takeaways from this question?
OM: I thought it was interesting, in general, how from the right [Libertarian candidates] and the left they often decided to try to evade this idea that there’s a tradeoff between the environment and industry.
On the right [Libertarian candidates], it was because industry is already doing what it should be on the environment. And on the left it was because they thought that there are lots of potential for green jobs.
I think there are a couple of things that are interesting about the cracker plant in particular. A lot of the candidates, particularly the mainstream candidates like Senator Bob Casey, are really pushing the jobs. He didn’t say anything, initially, about some of the potential environmental impacts.
Among a lot of the other candidates that were really supportive of the jobs, they tend to at least emphasize that it was important to regulate the emissions.
People who were in favor of the plant didn’t really talk about climate change. This plant is also going to increase a lot of greenhouse gases in the area and they didn’t really address that. Whereas about slightly under half of the Democrats were opposed to this and felt like when you added up all of the environmental costs, it wasn’t worth it for the 600 regular jobs that you were going to get.
KH: And while there was no specific question about fracking within the six questions that were asked, many candidates did mention a natural gas severance tax as a way to better fund the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.
OM: I think one of the things that’s really interesting is just who responded. So we didn’t get any responses from any of the Republicans. And that reflects how important addressing environmental issues are to their constituencies.
On the other hand, I think that what we’ve seen from the Democrats is that they haven’t controlled the Senate and the General Assembly and the governorship–all three of them at one time–since 1993, and then only for a year. So even among the Democratic candidates, a lot of their specific proposals tended to be ones that have come up a lot but there’s been no traction, like the severance tax.
There weren’t a lot of new ideas about compromises or ways of bringing forward a proposal that might actually get some traction.
KH: You mention that no Republicans responded to your request. What do you make of that? Did anyone in their offices tell you why they didn’t respond? I know you followed up with phone calls.
OM: I got a couple of emails saying, yes we’re going to get to this but then just never got a response. Part of it is just there are a lot fewer Republican candidates. A lot of Democrats are running unopposed. But we did have about 15 that we reached out to and didn’t hear back from any of them.
When you look at the surveys of the issues that people care most about, the environment is fourth or fifth or a lot further down the list for a large chunk of the population. And that’s among Democrats who are thinking about labor and jobs.
One thing that is a little bit surprising to me is that one of the core constituencies in this election that everyone’s paying attention to is suburban moms. Women in the suburbs are going to be a really important decider in how this election is going to go both nationally and locally.
We do know that a lot of those women really do care about the environment. They care about parks for their kids and pollution and how healthy their children are. If those voters come out and vote on the environment, maybe Republican candidates will pay more attention in the future. But they didn’t respond this time.
KH: Green Party candidates did have a lot of ideas, but a lot of them are very far to the left of what a lot of Democrats even are comfortable with.
OM: A lot of their emphasis is on investing money into green energy, like increasing subsidies at the state level. The amount of money we give to green energy is currently set to increase sort of slowly.
There are some proposals to increase that a little bit faster. And then the other main strategy that a couple of candidates brought up was setting a really ambitious target into the future like, we’re going to have a 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.
We asked them a question about whether or not we should subsidize coal power or nuclear power or green energy. That’s a really big issue locally because there have been proposals by the Trump administration to subsidize coal or nuclear because there are coal and nuclear plants that say that they’re going to close without this additional subsidy.
One of the things that I thought was really interesting, especially among all these liberal candidates, is very few of them called out coal. I’m not sure if that’s because, in this area, there’s just a sense that you don’t want to speak badly about an industry that’s long held an important place here.
But we do know that the elimination of coal, and the way that natural gas has out-competed coal, has been one of the biggest boons to improving air quality in the region and lowering climate change emissions. There were only a few candidates that said that was something we should focus on.
KH: So only the Green Party and Libertarian candidates for governor and lieutenant governor responded to these questions. You didn’t hear from high-profile candidates like John Fetterman, Jeff Bartos, Tom Wolfe and Scott Wagner.
OM: I was a little bit surprised, especially with John Fetterman in our backyard. I thought I thought we might hear from him.
The only thing I can think is he’s really been an outspoken proponent of labor unions. When you look at his website, you see him talking a lot about jobs and reinvestment and trying to do things to bring back economic vitality to the area. It doesn’t really mention the environment that much, so I guess it’s just not an issue that he’s focusing on.
KH: Do you think that the responses that we got are illuminating for voters? Will they change anyone’s mind, or provide a benchmark to hold politicians accountable after the election?
OM: It’s kind of a litmus test of where we are, what are the different ideas that are out there, and what is the variety of opinions.
It felt very reflective of the different debates that are going on in the country right now. I think that most of the candidates, perhaps for smart political reasons, didn’t nail down specifics that they’re going to be held to at the end. They were a little bit more general.
But I think in terms of just getting a sense of all the different issues and what are the potential positions candidates can hold, it was pretty good for that.
A complete breakdown of the questions and answers from the environmental survey of political candidates is available HERE.