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Fetterman and Oz at odds over natural gas, environmental concerns

The Hill logo The Hill 10/8/2022 Gianna Melillo
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Story at a glance

  • Since the early 2000s, natural gas development rapidly expanded across Pennsylvania, but its extraction and processing poses environmental and health harms.
  • Throughout their campaigns, candidates have weighed in on the sector and the role regulations play in protecting human health and jobs.
  • The outcome of the election will be pivotal in determining whether Republicans take control of the Senate in November.

The Pennsylvania Senate race between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz has made national headlines, not only because its outcome could determine which party takes control of the chamber come November, but for personal jabs made by each candidate taking aim at everything from personal health to puppy-killing pasts

But largely absent from the headlines are the candidates’ respective views on the state’s massive natural gas industry, and both the jobs and hazards that come with it.

In a state with a history of strong union values and pioneering environmental programs, Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman is vying to gain support from two groups of constituents that often hold contrasting end goals. 

A pro-union candidate, Fetterman is fighting for the blue collar vote in the traditionally red, rural areas of Pennsylvania, promising to “preserve the union way of life” for the thousands of workers employed by the state’s natural gas industry. 

However, a self-proclaimed environmental justice advocate, Fetterman concedes climate change is an “existential threat” and supports the transition to clean energy “as soon as possible.”

The balancing act may ultimately pitch the economic interests of the second-highest producer of natural gas in the country with the health and environmental risks of natural gas extraction and production.  

Earlier this week, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report moved the race from its “lean Democrat” column to “toss up,” as polling data shows Fetterman’s slight lead over Oz is shrinking

A closer look at the positions

Although Fetterman previously supported a temporary ban on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) during his 2016 senate run, he later reversed his position following Governor Tom Wolf’s introduction of new regulations on the industry. 

But some question the efficacy of Fetterman’s current dual approach. 

“I think he’s making a play for blue collar voters and for rural voters, but it’s more based on style and nativism than really issue substance, and that’s his problem,” Republican political consultant Keith Naughton told Changing America. “It’s hard closing the deal, unless you’re addressing people’s concerns on the issue front.” 

A September poll from CBS News shows the economy, inflation and crime are among the top concerns for Pennsylvania voters ahead of the midterm election. 

Naughton also noted attacks on the natural gas industry in the past have hurt Democrats in Pennsylvania and resulted in less support from trade unions. 

“Now the Republicans have nominated some pretty bad candidates, so it hasn’t reflected in wins and losses on the statewide scale, but it’s definitely put the state into a more competitive category, certainly for president.”

Politically, prioritizing environmental concerns over union interests poses a problem in the absence of an alternative energy source, or if the alternative is more expensive or is simply energy shortages, he added. “You’re going to lose that debate,” Naughton said. “So if you want to move away from natural gas, you’ve got to have a real efficient, cost effective alternative.”

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Fetterman has received endorsements from several environmental groups including the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund, Clean Water Action, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. But some activists are reluctant to lend their support. He’s also been endorsed by the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO and United Steelworkers District 10. 

“John rejects this notion that you have to pick between the environment and good union jobs,” said Fetterman campaign spokesperson Joe Calvello. 

“We need to make sure we are supporting these unions, union workers who work in the natural gas industry here in Pennsylvania, in making sure that they have stability, and they have a future,” Calvello said. “At the same time, we need to make sure that Pennsylvania is an absolute leader in green energy.” 

Meanwhile, Fetterman’s Republican rival, vehement natural-gas proponent Mehmet Oz, has called out the candidate’s previous support for a ban on fracking, claiming it would result in job losses. 

Doubling down on his staunch pro-union views, the Fetterman campaign refuted Oz’s claim, stating “John has stood up to politicians to fight for U.S. Steel’s right to build fracking wells,” and pointed to the criticism Fetterman received on the subject during the Democratic primary. 

“We can’t just abandon these [workers], and tell them to go learn how to code,” a Fetterman spokesperson told WFMZ-TV in August. 

As the United States continues to use more solar and wind power, ensuring these technologies are not built in China but are instead domestically manufactured can help the green energy transformation while preserving jobs at the same time, Cavello said. “John always says Republicans need to get real about climate change and Democrats need to get real about our energy security.”

Oz himself previously expressed concern about the health risks of fracking and called for the full disclosure of any chemicals leaked into the environment throughout the process.

But in his current bid for Senate, Oz has cemented his support for the natural gas industry, promising to overturn “heavy-handed regulations” imposed by the Biden administration he argues are “stifling domestic energy production,” his website reads.

Throughout his campaign, Oz received donations totalling over $200,000 from oil and gas companies, while he and his wife hold stakes in ConocoPhillips and Pioneer Natural Resources — two major oil and gas companies that both conduct fracking operations. 

The Oz campaign did not respond to questions from Changing America for this story.

Natural gas in PA

The natural gas industry currently employs over 72,000 workers in Pennsylvania, and as of 2021, over half of all Pennsylvania households rely on natural gas as their primary home heating fuel.

Since its boom in the early 2000s, natural gas has been touted as a clean transition fuel by companies, a claim they make based on the fact that when burned, it does not emit nearly as much carbon dioxide and other pollutants compared with coal or oil. 

Over this time period, fracking shale formations became the dominant form of extracting natural gas, and in 2000, the United States operated around 23,000 hydraulically fractured wells. That number grew to around 300,000 by 2015. 

In Pennsylvania, natural gas production from fracking grew by 6.8 percent in 2021 over the previous year, while the 518 new wells drilled in 2021 was the greatest year-over-year annual increase since 2017, according to the state’s Independent Fiscal Office.

To frack a well, a stream of high-pressure water, chemicals and sand is injected into cracks in and below the earth’s surface, forcing trapped gas to rise. 

But the process has been criticized by environmentalists for its resource-intensive nature, the huge amounts of wastewater it produces and other lasting harms.

“A faster transition away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy will more quickly diminish the health harms associated with fossil fuels, particularly shale gas,” Alison Steele, Executive Director at the Environmental Health Project (EHP), told Changing America.

EHP was founded a decade ago during the onset of the shale boom in southwest Pennsylvania. The nonprofit works to better incorporate public health into policies on shale gas development. 

In a white paper published earlier this year, EHP outlined what it called Pennsylvania’s failure to adequately address the public health concerns of the fracking boom. 

“Any type of loosening of regulations on the industry, which is already loosely regulated and very poorly enforced, at least in Pennsylvania, would mean an increase of potential health risks for people in frontline communities,” Steele said. 

Apart from health concerns, methane leaks from natural gas production are top-of-mind for environmentalists, as the greenhouse gas is over 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, according to the EPA. Leaks of volatile organic compounds have also been documented near oil and gas drilling activities, while some of these substances are carcinogenic and can lead to long-term health problems.

Not only has methane been found to leak from abandoned wells, but leaks have been documented “at every single stage of the gas supply chain, from the point of extraction, to processing the gas, transporting it, storing it,” said Robert Routh, an attorney and consultant with the Pennsylvania-based Clean Air Action Fund.  

Even if the most stringent regulatory policies are enacted, zero leakage will never be achieved, Routh said.

“If enough methane leaks, given how extremely potent it is as a greenhouse gas, any climate benefits [of natural gas production] compared to coal could be wiped out.”

Understanding the economics 

A common argument against increased regulation of the natural gas industry or bans on fracking as a whole is that any new restrictive legislation will have detrimental effects on the thousands of workers in the state and its economy.

But research from 2021 shows counties that produced the most natural gas across Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia between 2008 and 2019 saw a decline in their share of jobs, income, and population compared with national rates. The report was conducted by the Ohio River Valley Institute, a non-profit organization that focuses on clean energy and equitable democracy throughout Appalachia. 

“I would say if we’re going to have an economic conversation, let it be a comprehensive economic conversation including information like [the Ohio River Valley’s report], and also talking about the economic impacts of poor health outcomes,” said Steele. 

These can include costs of missed days of school and work, expenses for emergency room visits, hospitalizations, medications, and injuries, Steele said. 

“There are a significant number of health impacts that are tied to public health as well and that very often gets left out of the conversation.”

Routh also argues there’s a “false choice” between having clean energy, a growing economy, and family-sustaining job growth, especially given the clean energy incentives included in the Inflation Reduction Act. 

For Pennsylvania specifically, the Act is expected to bring a $270 million investment for large-scale clean power generation and storage between 2022 and 2030, and provide tax credits to create jobs across solar, wind, and other clean energy industries.

“We really want to make sure that if there are conversations happening about how we move forward [with the transition to renewable energy], residents of those communities have to have a place at the table and a role in the decision making process and often they have not,” Steele said.

“We recognize their need to be meaningful opportunities and that means good, safe, well-paying jobs located in areas where there could be a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies.” 

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