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PITTSBURGH—Mike Baltzer comes from a blue-collar family in western Pennsylvania. But he barely hears anyone talk about fracking—long hyped as a local economic engine—positively anymore.
For his part, Baltzer, 42, staunchly opposes fracking, the drilling and high-pressure injection of liquid into rocks to collect oil and gas, because of its potential to harm the environment.
“I’m not coming at this from a tree-hugger, hippy background,” Baltzer told The Daily Beast. “I’m a Yinzer. And I know better.”
Donald Trump has taken on a hardline pro-fracking stance against Democrat Joe Biden in their final, frenetic push to capture the Keystone State’s 20 electoral votes, which flipped red as part of the president’s shock 2016 victory. At a rally in Erie on Tuesday and again at the final debate on Thursday, Trump tore into the former vice president, mocking what he described as the Democrat’s flip-flop on the practice.
“You know what Pennsylvania? He’ll be against it very soon, because his party is totally against it,” Trump said Thursday.
Biden has carefully avoided bashing fracking for some time, saying that he doesn’t want to ban it, but has opposed it on federal land. That seems to reflect a stubborn consensus among the Democratic political class that the issue is some kind of third-rail in the state. And it still is important to some voters, especially in more rural parts of a state infamously described by Democratic strategist James Carville as “Paoli and Penn Hills, with Alabama in between.”
But conversations with actual residents, local politicians, and a comb of public opinion data suggest perspectives on fracking in Pennsylvania are changing faster than top Democrats—and the president who seems to think it will save him—realize.
According to the NPR project StateImpact Pennsylvania, the state has nearly 8,000 active natural gas wells, and many—more than 1,100—are in Washington County, which is south of Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania’s natural gas and oil industry employs about 26,000 people, according to advocacy group Food and Water Watch.
Recent polls show Pennsylvanians generally are mixed on the practice. A joint CBS and YouGov poll from August showed 52 percent of Pennsylvanians oppose fracking with 48 percent approving. Another August poll prepared by Democratic firm Global Strategy Group for the advocacy group Climate Power 2020 showed that while 61 percent of Pennsylvanians had a favorable view of the natural gas industry, only 32 percent had a favorable view of the fracking industry, compared to 50 percent unfavorable.
According to Andrew Baumann, a researcher for Global Strategy Group, the same poll showed similar numbers for Pittsburgh, the largest city in western Pennsylvania: 38 percent favorable compared to 51 percent unfavorable. Statewide, only 8 percent are “very” favorable toward the fracking industry, Baumann added—and that number was just 9 percent for Pittsburgh in his firm’s data.
Despite this, top Democrats around the country and in Pennsylvania have been cautious about supporting a ban on fracking, long pushed by environmentalists as a way to combat climate change and promote clean water. Pennsylvania Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, often heralded as a progressive, and Pittsburgh Democratic Mayor Bill Peduto both told The New York Times in January that they feared a presidential candidate running on banning fracking could crush Democrats’ chances of winning Pennsylvania in November.
But Bethany Hallam, Democratic councilperson-at-large in Allegheny County, supports a ban on fracking—and believes positive sentiment toward it has dwindled in the past five years or so.
“For forever, it was positioned as, you either have clean air and a healthy environment, or you have good paying jobs,” Hallam told The Daily Beast. “And folks have started to realize that’s just a propaganda manipulation tactic by folks in the natural gas industry.”
Hallam thinks presidential candidates would have a better chance of impressing Pennsylvanians by talking more about union jobs and renewable energy. Most recent surveys show Biden—who talks about both and whose plan ultimately does likely mean phasing out fracking—leading statewide.
“I can tell by the way that both candidates are talking that they understand Pennsylvania is going to decide this presidential election,” Hallam said. “And so they’re speaking what they think is important, but I believe that they are both out of touch with what people in Pennsylvania actually want to see.”
Michael Oehling, a 28-year-old Republican resident in Butler county, north of Pittsburgh, who works in sales and serves as a Buffalo Township Supervisor, does not support a ban on fracking. He also believes it’s important for Pennsylvania because of the jobs and money provided to municipalities.
However, Oehling acknowledges the environmental damage that can come from the practice.
“I’ve seen those videos of people and their water being tainted,” Oehling told The Daily Beast. “I think fracking is good if it’s done correctly.”
Eric Garland, 37, a Republican Allegheny County resident who runs a landscaping business, said he’s all for fracking because it helps the economy.
“It’s pretty much gotten my family through the late 90s and early 2000’s for work,” Garland said. “Both my father, brother and sister worked in the industry for a little while, and my dad’s still in the industry on the chemical side now.”
But even Garland doesn’t believe fracking could swing the election in Pennsylvania, and, if anything, he said, the issue might help Biden.
“A lot of people are more environmentally active right now than they were,” Garland said. “It’s hard, because a lot of times, they’re either under-informed or misinformed about certain things. And I’m sure it goes both ways.”
Allegheny County resident Nicole Vukovich, 40, doesn’t like fracking. She’s concerned about what it could do to the air. That being said, it’s not one of her top issues as a voter either.
“I just feel like there are so many other super-important issues,” Vukovich said. Issues like social justice, the pandemic, and voter suppression jump out as more important to her at this moment.
Julie Theaker, a 52-year-old in Westmoreland County, feels similarly.
“It’s just utterly ridiculous to destroy the environment and cause earthquakes and Lord knows what for a couple dollars a barrel,” she said.
Though Theaker supports a ban on fracking, she understands that Biden fears he could lose votes running on one. But she believes the votes to be lost are in states like Texas and Oklahoma, not Pennsylvania.
When some voters hear Trump going to bat so strongly for fracking, they get confused. To them, it seems like a now-irrelevant talking point.
“I don’t know, realistically, long-term, how much longer that industry will have the power that they do,” Baltzer said, adding, “It’s not going well for them.”