Pennsylvania voters head to the polls Tuesday in the primary elections for what will be a critical swing-state Senate race this fall. Two years ago, natural gas drilling became a top focus of Donald Trump’s failed bid to win Pennsylvania, and this year the war in Ukraine and surging gasoline prices have thrust energy issues into the race once again.
But voters may find that the politicians have barely distinguished themselves from their rivals on energy and climate change. And the leading candidates from both parties have professed their support for drilling in a state that is the second-leading producer of natural gas in the country.
The top Republican candidates have barely mentioned climate change, if at all. Instead, each has promoted their commitment to “energy independence.”
The leading Democrats, meanwhile, have hewed largely to the center of their party’s positions, speaking about climate change as an urgent issue while avoiding any calls to limit drilling. Rep. Conor Lamb, who trails the state’s lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, has gone further to support natural gas production than many Democrats, saying it has helped the nation cut emissions by replacing dirtier coal. That position is often promoted by the oil and gas industry.
David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, a citizen-based advocacy group, said Democrats in the state have to appeal to environmentally minded voters while retaining support from unions, which are powerful fundraisers and are largely proponents of natural gas development.
“It’s important to acknowledge that tension if you’re running on the Democratic side,” Masur said. “Can I straddle that line.”
The winners in Tuesday’s race will vie for a seat being vacated by Pat Toomey, a Republican senator who is retiring, giving Democrats a chance to pick up a seat in the upper chamber.
Berwood Yost, the director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College, which runs a statewide political poll, said the candidates’ positions on energy and climate change are unlikely to be deciding factors in the race no matter what.
“We consistently ask about the most important problems facing the state in our polls,” he said, “and environmental issues don’t come up a whole lot.”
Only about 2 percent of Democratic voters and 3 percent of Republicans listed the environment as a top issue when deciding which candidate to vote for, far behind other issues.
If anything, Yost said, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and high inflation will force candidates to shy away from climate change and focus more on economic issues, which in a drilling state like Pennsylvania could mean supporting fossil fuel development.
That imperative has surfaced in the Republican race, where Mehmet Oz, who won Trump’s endorsement, has been trying to assure voters of his support for drilling.
Oz has attacked what his website refers to as “heavy-handed regulations” on the energy industry, claiming the Biden administration is “stifling domestic energy production.” In March, he posted a video to social media from a gas station decrying officials in the administration who called for a pivot off of fossil fuels in response to high energy prices.
“Back off Biden and give us the freedom to Frack!” it said.
At a candidate forum in March, Oz said the natural gas industry was being attacked “for no good reason except the ideology that carbon is bad—which itself is a lie,” according to E&E News. “Carbon dioxide, my friends, 0.04 percent of our air. That’s not the problem.”
But journalists and opponents have pointed out that these remarks appear to stand at odds with Oz’s previous statements.
In his work as a celebrity doctor, Oz co-wrote a column that several times highlighted concerns about the health impacts of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the drilling technique that has made Pennsylvania a major gas producer. In 2017, the column highlighted research indicating that climate change posed a public health threat.
In previous comments to Inside Climate News in March, Brittany Yanick, a spokeswoman for Oz, said he “has always supported hydraulic fracturing and a strong domestic energy industry.”
David McCormick, a former hedge fund executive who is running against Oz has taken a similar position on energy. His campaign website lists “establishing American energy independence” as a top issue, highlighting Pennsylvania’s role as a top energy-producing state.
While his website does not mention climate change, McCormick did speak about the issue in 2008, when he served in the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. In a speech about China’s “environmentally sustainable growth,” McCormick called climate change a “global challenge” and promoted the Bush administration’s efforts to reach an international agreement. (Bush famously had previously withdrawn the United States from the Kyoto Protocol climate agreement.)
“That to me is the big story,” Masur said, “how candidates easily and willingly move their positions.”
McCormick and Oz have spent millions of dollars attacking each other through advertising, but in recent weeks a third candidate, Kathy Barnette, has surged to a virtual tie with them from relative obscurity. Like her rivals, Barnette has said little about climate change or energy. Her website lists energy independence as a “day one” issue, saying she “will promote clean nuclear and fossil fuel options, alongside renewable energy research and development.”
Among Democrats, Fetterman has held a consistent and comfortable lead, and Masur said the candidate has remained largely quiet about his positions on climate change and energy.
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In a previous run for Senate in 2016, Fetterman said he supported a moratorium on fracking in the state unless Pennsylvania adopted a tax on natural gas extraction—it is the only major oil and gas producer without such a tax—and “the strictest enviro regulations in this country.”
Fetterman has also signed a pledge to refuse any campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry.
But last year, Fetterman said he opposed banning fracking, telling WESA public radio that, “what I hope we do, is we make it so that it becomes there is eventually a de facto moratorium because the transition is going to be toward green and renewable energy.”
This month, Fetterman told StateImpact Pennsylvania, a project of NPR, that “we need to transition to make investments to make green American energy on an ongoing basis and evolve towards that, but right now our energy security is paramount.”
His campaign website features a video titled “Climate Justice,” in which Fetterman talks about the disproportionate impacts of pollution on some communities, but which does not actually mention climate change. The website also calls climate change an “existential threat,” adding, “we need to transition to clean energy as quickly as possible, and we can create millions of good union jobs in the process.”
Lamb, who currently represents a western Pennsylvania district home to gas drilling, has staked out a position slightly to Fetterman’s right. At an April debate, Lamb said “the single technology that has allowed us to reduce our carbon emissions in the United States the most is fracking because it has taken so much market share away from coal,” according to City & State Pennsylvania. He added that it “has to be done responsibly.”
Lamb’s campaign website says greenhouse gas emissions must be cut to zero by 2050 in order to avoid the worst of a “global climate disaster.” But it also says “We need to be honest about the fact that natural gas is a critical bridge fuel that helps us keep people warm and keep the lights on at a price people can afford, and it is American-made.”
The site also says Lamb supported stricter regulations on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, and that “we need to learn how to capture the carbon and methane all along the distribution network.”
A third candidate, Malcom Kenyatta, has aligned himself with the more progressive wing of the party on climate and energy, but polling shows him trailing in a distant third. In response to questions sent to the candidates by StateImpact Pennsylvania, Kenyatta called for an end to new “tax breaks or incentives to big polluters,” and said he supported halting new drilling on federal lands. Notably, such a ban would have little if any impact on drilling in Pennsylvania, where the vast majority of wells are on private lands.
While Yost said that climate change and the environment have not surfaced as top issues in the primary, that could change in the general election, when the contrast between candidates will be greater.
Whoever wins on Tuesday will have to prepare for a race that will help decide the balance of the Senate next year, which could prove pivotal for the nation’s climate policy. If Republicans gain control, there will be little chance of President Biden advancing any of his climate agenda.