Proposals to ban fracking have divided Democratic presidential candidates on the national stage, and the issue is already looming over a closely-watched western Pennsylvania Congressional race.
Moderate Democrat Conor Lamb has weighed in, saying he does not support legislation from U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that would ban fracking, and asking his House colleagues to vote against the bill.
“I just don't think it's good climate policy. It's unrealistic to say a president would even be able to enact that kind of ban,” Lamb said in an interview with WESA earlier this month. “I'm just trying to get our party a little more focused on reality rather than these sort of fantasy, headline-grabbing proposals.”
Lamb’s comments came soon after Republican challenger Sean Parnell tweeted that the Democratic Party and former Vice President Joe Biden (who Lamb endorsed) support bans.
“The ONLY way to save these union jobs now is if the @GOP takes back the House, which means you have to go,” Parnell tweeted. “This is YOUR party. You own this madness.”
Biden has called for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and a “transition away from greenhouse gas-intensive industries.” But the former vice president does not support a fracking ban. In a CNN town hall in September, a voter asked what he would do about fracking. Biden said he would not support a ban but would support ending drilling on federal lands as well as reviewing existing gas-drilling operations to determine “whether or not they are dangerous.” Biden also said there aren’t enough votes to pass national legislation to ban fracking.
Parnell's campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Pennsylvania is home to the Marcellus Shale, one of the largest natural-gas resources in the United States, and the industry is an important source for employment in Western Pennsylvania, such as the Shell cracker plant being built in Beaver County, which is part of Lamb’s district.
A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found a fracking ban to be unpopular among Pennsylvania swing voters, with nearly 60 percent believing it’s a bad idea. But the politics of fracking are complicated, and other recent polling shows a ban is popular in urban and many suburban areas, while decidedly unpopular in southwestern Pennsylvania counties outside Allegheny.
Lamb denied wading into the fracking debate because of what the issue could mean for him as a moderate Democrat in a swing district. He said he knows many of the people who are building gas pipelines and the cracker plant.
“These are people I've gotten to really know, I represent them,” Lamb said. “To think about enacting a bill that would directly eliminate people's jobs, like what they're using to feed their families, save for their kids to go to school -- it's just wrong, and the Democratic Party has never stood for that kind of thing. We've always stood for protecting people's jobs, and I think we have to get back to that.”
“To anyone who tries to make it seem like Republicans are for fossil fuels and Democrats are not, it's simply wrong,” Lamb said. "The Obama administration allowed for the export of [liquified natural gas] for the first time. It was Gov. Ed Rendell that permitted a lot of the initial Marcellus Shale drilling sites. It was Republican Gov. Corbett who really is responsible for what happened with the Shell cracker plant. Both parties have worked on this in the past, and that's all I'm trying to get back to.”
Fracking-ban proposals have also made waves on the national political stage. Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders introduced a proposal in the Senate, and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren supports one too, along with U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Tom Steyer. Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Mike Bloomberg do not support a ban but do support regulations or limits.
But while Democratic strategists and politicos have worried publicly about how the issue has divided voters in the party, community organizer Ashley Funk of Fayette County doesn’t think Sanders’ proposal will hurt his popularity with Democrats in Pennsylvania.
She acknowledged that it’s just a matter of time before the natural-gas industry sinks enormous amounts of money in ads attacking any candidate who does support a ban. But “I don’t think that will have as huge of an impact ... with voters as the current media is letting on,” Funk said. She said that advocating for a fracking ban won't hurt a candidate like Sanders "as long as at the flip side he’s also immediately talking about how we need to support the majority of working Americans.”
Funk supports a ban and said the Green New Deal approach embraced by Sanders and others "is centering shale gas workers in the transition. It is making sure that they are getting the employment that they need in order to sustain themselves going forward over the next five years. Whenever the gas industry eventually does collapse, [those companies] are not going to sustain workers here. They’re not going to make sure that they’re supporting people that are going to lose their jobs. But this legislation is.”