Could A Proposed Fracking Ban Decide the 2020 Presidential Race?

By Keya Vakil

March 2, 2020

Democrats have made Pennsylvania a priority in their quest to win back the presidency. But Sen. Bernie Sanders’ proposed ban on fracking might impact the race after a new poll found 42% of Pennsylvanians oppose such a measure.

Is fracking good or bad? 

In Pennsylvania, voters appear split over the controversial method of natural gas drilling that has become prevalent in the state over the past decade. Forty-two percent of Pennsylvanians oppose a ban or moratorium on fracking, while 38% agree that the state should enact such a measure. Twenty percent, according to a new statewide Morning Call/Muhlenberg College poll. are undecided. 

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves injecting a high-pressure mixture of water, sand, and chemicals into underground rock formations to extract natural gas or oil. Fracking has boosted oil production across the United States, lowered gas costs, and added tens of thousands of jobs in certain states, including Pennsylvania.

But fracking has also been roundly criticized by environmentalists, who point to research showing that it causes air pollution, increases the likelihood of earthquakes, increases the potential for oil spills, and can cause the release of carcinogenic chemicals that contaminate groundwater

Fracking has also been linked to an increase in methane gas in the atmosphere, one of the key drivers of climate change.

One major opponent of fracking is Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the frontrunner in the Democratic party’s 2020 presidential primary. Sanders proposed a nationwide fracking ban in January, calling it a “danger to our water supply.” Sanders’ fellow presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has also said she would support a fracking ban. 

Both candidates’ proposals have unsurprisingly been met with hostility from energy companies, but they’ve also encountered resistance among another, more traditionally democratic-aligned group: unions

This opposition is particularly noteworthy in Pennsylvania, which is the second-largest natural-gas producing state in the nation. 

“If we end up with a Democratic candidate that supports a fracking ban, I’m going to tell my members that they either don’t vote or vote for the other guy,” James T. Kunz Jr., business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 66 in Pittsburgh, told the New York Times in January.

Pennsylvania Lt. Governor John Fetterman also opposes a fracking ban and views the extraction and taxing of natural gas as essential to Pennsylvania’s economy and the “union way of life.”

Could A Proposed Fracking Ban Decide the 2020 Presidential Race?

Half of Pennsylvania voters seem to agree, with 50% of poll respondents saying they believe fracking has created “a major boost” to the state’s economy. Another 26% disagreed, and 25% weren’t sure.

Sanders, a staunch union ally, has prioritized transitioning fossil fuel workers who would be displaced by his fracking ban into good-paying jobs in their communities.

“We must realize that workers in the fracking fields are not the enemy, coal miners are not the enemy, and oil rig workers are not the enemy. Climate change is the enemy. As we transition to 100% renewable energy, we must come together to ensure a just transition for all fossil fuel workers,” Sanders said in a January statement. “If we are serious about clean air and drinking water, if we are serious about combating climate change, the only safe and sane way to move forward is to ban fracking nationwide.”

While Pennsylvanians believe that fracking has economic benefits, a plurality (44%) of poll respondents also agreed that natural gas drilling poses a major health risk to state residents, while 36% disagreed and 20% weren’t sure.

A January 2020 poll from Franklin & Marshall College found similar divisions; 49% of voters said the environmental risks of fracking outweigh the economic benefits. Only 38% believed those benefits outweighed the environmental risks. The poll also found 48% of registered voters supported a fracking ban while only 39% opposed it. 

The debate over fracking in Pennsylvania is unlikely to stop anytime soon and could even play a pivotal role in this year’s presidential race. Pennsylvania helped put Donald Trump in the White House in 2016, and Democrats have made the state a priority in their quest to win back the presidency. 

But if Sanders wins the nomination, some Democrats worry it could cost them Pennsylvania in the general election. 

“In Pennsylvania, you’re talking hundreds of thousands of related jobs that would be — they would be unemployed overnight,” Fetterman, who endorsed Sanders in 2016, told the New York Times. “Pennsylvania is a margin play,” he added. “And an outright ban on fracking isn’t a margin play.”

Still, for others, the long-term environmental impacts are far more important. 

“Fracking is dangerous for our health, our water, our land and climate. We can no longer ignore the dangerous earthquakes caused by wastewater injection or the contaminated groundwater that is poisoning families,” Natalie Mebane, associate director of policy at said in a statement. “We can’t just regulate fracking, we must ban it outright … In order to avoid the worst of the climate crisis, we must rapidly transition off of fossil fuels, and end fracking.” 

The Morning Call poll surveyed 424 registered Pennsylvania voters and was conducted between Feb. 12 and Feb. 20. It had a margin of error of plus/minus 5.5 percentage points.

This story originally published on Keystone.


  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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