Feed the family or save the planet? The fracking choice for Pennsylvania’s voters

Braddock, Pennsylvania is a small town with a population of little over 2,000 people. But what it tells you about how America might vote this year feels big.

In this corner of south-west Pennsylvania, one swing issue in this, the swingiest of states, could provide decisive – where candidates stand on fracking natural gas.

Donald Trump has made his position clear – determined to drive further oil and gas production.

President Trump addressing Pennsylvania energy workers in August 2019
Image:President Trump addressing Pennsylvania energy workers in August 2019

With Democrats, it’s a little more complicated. Moderates like Joe Biden want regulation. But Bernie Sanders, his closest rival for the Democratic presidential candidate nomination, is backing an outright ban.

That’s a controversial aspiration in a state where a decline in coal mining and steel manufacturing has hit people hard. In Braddock, poverty and poor health have long been a problem.

Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania, John Fetterman, is a Democrat who became a face of the push for a rust belt renewal.

He says his party needs to get real. “Republicans have to become honest about climate change. But I think Democrats in our country, in my party, have to get honest about the energy and gas industry.”

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He says a pragmatic approach is what’s needed. Rather than risking alienating thousands of people by taking away their jobs, it’s better to “transition towards renewable energy and independence from fossils fuels that than an abrupt switch-off on day one”.

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In nearby Clairton, members of the United Steelworkers union also believe Bernie Sanders could be seriously damaging his chances by pushing for a ban.

Outside the coke plant where he works Bob Chillinksy tells me: “When fracking came along it just created so many jobs. It’s unbelievable especially in the Pittsburgh area. It just put a spike into everything.”

His colleague Chuck Sims, who said he jumped on the Trump train in 2016, is also incredulous at the idea of ending the industry. He dismisses climate change and health concerns about fracking. For him, it’s all about getting food on the table for his family.

“Somebody is going to do it,” he says. “Why can’t we reap the benefits?” Standing alongside him, Don Furko, president of the union makes clear any ban would need to get sign off from Congress first.

But he’s pretty adamant the majority of his members won’t be backing Senator Sanders. “Are we done endorsing Democrats? I’m not entirely sure yet. But it’s pretty clear that the membership here is largely backing Republicans.”

Many he says, were Democrats until 2016.

Image:Summer Lee says fracking is impacting the health of her constituents

But back in Braddock, I meet Summer Lee, the Democratic representative for the 34th district of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Her resounding victory in the seat came on the back of an anti-fracking message.

The 32-year old African American says “study after study shows that fracking can have terrible health impacts on communities, on their water, birth weight for kids”. Adding that to her community with its already high rates of asthma, lung disease and cancer is, she says, toxic.

African Americans are the majority in Braddock and Rep. Lee says their suffering and their political power are being overlooked.

The big question is will climate change and candidates’ positions be a deciding factor in the 2020 race?

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Ultimate guide to the 2020 presidential election

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The answer arguably lies with young voters and how many decide to go to the ballot box. Just 30 minutes away in Pittsburgh, I meet a group of young climate activists.

They are all concerned about the environmental and health impact of pumping millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand into the earth.

Leandra Mira says she’s seen the devastation first hand and thinks climate change will have an impact in the election. “But that’s me being optimistic,” she adds, “because if I think that it won’t, I will fall into a really depressive episode. So I have to tell myself that it’s enough.”

Image:Leandra Mira hopes climate change will influence the election

Jay Ting Walker can see the fracking debate playing out in the Democratic primaries, but thinks housing, health and other issues will have a bigger impact on whether people go for a Democrat or Donald Trump.

His fellow campaigner, Ellen Conrad claims energy jobs are growing five times faster than the normal employment rate and they just have to make sure now that those opportunities start to reach rural communities more.

The question is how long are those struggling communities to wait? Many of them acknowledge that Trump casting climate change as a hoax has confused and distracted people.

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And in an election where the economy looms large, in a state still haunted by the decline of industry, people’s financial worries and aspirations may top all else.

It is certainly bold and brave for a candidate to back a ban on fracking. It may prove to be an act of great political foresight and optimism, or politically disastrous.

At very least, it feels like it will play a part in how this hugely important state votes.

Mark Gibson

Graduates in Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1990. Move to Los Angeles California in 2004. Specialized in Internet journalism.

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