Energy shapes debate in Pennsylvania legislative elections, in Allegheny Valley and statewide
Energy is big business in southwestern Pennsylvania, and the debate over its future often marks a sharp division between Democrats and Republicans seeking elected office. In no race this fall is the disagreement more apparent than in the contest for Pennsylvania’s 33rd State House District near Pittsburgh.
The district, which extends from Sharpsburg into the Alle-Kiski Valley, once was home to Allegheny County’s last coal-fired power plant. But the Cheswick Generating Station closed this spring, and 60 workers were laid off.
Democratic candidate Mandy Steele, of Fox Chapel, believes that new, lower-carbon power sources could more than offset those losses. This summer, Congress passed the most ambitious climate legislation in U.S. history, she noted. The spending package is known as the Inflation Reduction Act.
“There's no reason why we shouldn't be directing that investment and job creation our way,” Steele said. “We have a real, real tremendous opportunity to completely revitalize our economy and restore it to the vibrant hub that it once was.”
She said, if elected to represent the 33rd District, clean energy development would be her top priority in Harrisburg. Her website says she would also “work to ban fracking in western [Pennsylvania]," though in an interview last month, she said only that the practice should be regulated more.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, releases natural gas trapped underground in shale formations by blasting a mix of water, sand and chemicals into the rock. It emits less carbon dioxide than coal and oil, and proponents say it reduces U.S. reliance on foreign suppliers. But critics say the technique pollutes local water supplies while also releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Even so, Steele said a wholesale moratorium is no longer necessary because the federal climate infrastructure legislation includes penalties for methane leaks at some oil and gas facilities.
Even that softened position represents a major contrast from her opponent this November, Fawn Township Republican Ted Tomson. Though he declined to be interviewed, his website urges "government support" for fossil fuel industries.
“It is important for Pennsylvania, especially in the southwest, to continue to tap into natural resources,” the site says. “Supporting the production of coal, oil, and natural gas will secure well-paying jobs for Pennsylvanians, which foster growth in our local economies.”
Fossil fuel industries employed about 50,000 people in the state in 2021, according to research commissioned by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Natural gas and petroleum account for most of those jobs, and in 2020, Pennsylvania produced more natural gas than any state but Texas, thanks largely to fracking.
Dave Callahan, the president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, predicted that his industry will continue to drive energy production in Pennsylvania even as the sector moves to cut emissions.
“We know people are concerned about the price of their energy," he said. "People are concerned about sustainability of their energy. And I'm confident that natural gas checks all those boxes for consumers."
Natural gas will provide a reliable power source as the country builds its capacity to generate electricity through renewables and other clean technologies, he said. And he added that gas drillers have implemented their own controls to lower emissions. So for now, he hopes the state will ease permitting requirements that often delay the construction of natural gas infrastructure.
“We hope that the policy environment continues to be such that it can continue to ... grow this industry so that we can continue to achieve the great economic and environmental benefits,” Callahan said.
His group is non-partisan, but labor and business groups invested in fossil fuels broadly support Republican causes, including the principal statewide Republican political committee that seeks to elect GOP members to the state House.
Opponents say the economic benefits of the fracking boom haven’t trickled down to local communities.
“For such a long time, the oil and gas industry has been claiming major economic impact in particularly rural gas-producing counties like counties around Pittsburgh and Allegheny County and beyond,” said Joanne Kilgour, the executive director of the Ohio River Valley Institute.
“And the reality is, when we look at how these areas have performed over the last 10 to 12 years, since the advent of shale gas development, we're not seeing the kind of economic performance that you'd expect.”
Kilgour’s organization also does not endorse candidates. But its research shows that poverty has persisted and populations continue to shrink in Appalachian counties where natural gas drilling has a large presence.
Jeff Nobers, the executive director of the business-labor alliance Pittsburgh Works Together, noted that population decline has been a problem throughout Pennsylvania.
Pittsburgh Works consists of natural gas companies, unions, and contractors associations. It doesn't endorse candidates either, though Nobers said it favors an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy in which fossil fuels would eventually be phased out. But that vision is decades off, he said. And today, he noted, the natural gas industry continues to employ a range of unionized workers such as operating engineers, pipe liners, steamfitters and ironworkers.
The participation of unionized workers in the fossil-fuels sector has made the issue a tricky one to navigate. The last time communities in the 33rd district chose a House member, Republican Carrie DelRosso garnered the support of Boilermakers Local 154 over incumbent Frank Dermody. DelRosso won the race but was drawn out of the district ahead of this year’s election. She ran for lieutenant governor instead — and this time, the union backed the Democratic ticket as Josh Shapiro pledged to review policies of critical importance to the industry.
In any case, Nobers said it’s too early to know whether clean energy jobs will come with the same pay and benefits as union work.
“What needs to be understood is just what will these jobs be, and what are the benefits to the people taking those jobs going to be?” he said. “Will they be able to build a solid middle-class lifestyle and take care of their families in these new jobs or these clean energy jobs, as they're often referred to?”
“Labor has got to be a part of this conversation,” agreed Steele, the Democrat. “And I would really work to make sure that all parties are participating.”
Amanda Woodrum, co-director of ReImagine Appalachia, similarly advocates for an inclusive approach to the clean energy transition. Her nonprofit is a coalition of labor, environmental, and community groups. It also does not endorse candidates, but hailed the passage of the federal climate infrastructure package.
“We have a huge opportunity … to bring much needed federal resources into the region, to create a new economy, one that grows local wealth,” Woodrum said.
“We need folks [in office] that are proactive in reimagining their communities and setting the stage to draw down what will be competitive funds,” she said. “Otherwise the state's going to lose out.”