In the race for the open US Senate seat in Pennsylvania, candidates from both parties support fracking and barely mention climate change

Voters in Pennsylvania head to the polls on Tuesday in the primary election for what will be a critical Senate race this fall. Two years ago, drilling for natural gas became a primary focus of Donald Trump’s failed bid to win Pennsylvania, and this year war in Ukraine and soaring gas prices have again pushed energy issues into the race.

But voters may find the politicians barely distinguished themselves from their rivals on energy and climate change. And leading candidates from both parties have professed support for drilling in a state that is the nation’s second-largest natural gas producer.

Top Republican candidates barely mentioned climate change, if at all. Instead, each promoted their commitment to “energy independence.”

Leading Democrats, meanwhile, have largely leaned into the center of their party’s positions, talking about climate change as a pressing issue while avoiding any calls to limit drilling. Rep. Conor Lamb, who trails state Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, has gone further to support natural gas production than many Democrats, saying it has helped the country reduce emissions by displacing coal dirtier. This position is often promoted by the oil and gas industry.

David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, a citizens’ advocacy group, said Democrats in the state must appeal to environmentally conscious voters while maintaining support for unions, which are powerful fundraisers and are broad supporters of natural gas development.

“It’s important to recognize that tension if you’re running on the Democratic side,” Masur said. “Can I straddle this line?”

The winners of Tuesday’s race will contest a seat vacated by Pat Toomey, a Republican senator who is retiring, giving Democrats a shot at a seat in the upper house.

Berwood Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College, which organizes a statewide political poll, said candidates’ positions on energy and climate change are unlikely to be factors. decisive in the race, whatever happens.

“We regularly ask about the most important issues facing the state in our polls,” he said, “and environmental issues don’t come up very often.”

Only about 2% of Democratic voters and 3% of Republicans ranked the environment as a top issue when deciding which candidate to vote for, far behind other issues.

On the contrary, Yost said, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and high inflation will force candidates to turn away from climate change and focus more on economic issues, which in a drilling state like the Pennsylvania, could mean supporting fossil fuel development.

That imperative surfaced in the Republican race, where Mehmet Oz, who won Trump’s endorsement, tried to assure voters of his support for drilling.

Oz has attacked what his website calls “tough regulations” on the energy industry, saying the Biden administration is “stifling household energy production.” In March he posted a video on social media of a gas station decrying administration officials who have called for a move away from fossil fuels in response to high energy prices.

“Stand back Biden and give us freedom from 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 in itself is a lie,” according to E&E News. . “Carbon dioxide, my friends, 0.04% of our air. That’s not the problem.

But reporters and naysayers have pointed out that the remarks appear to be at odds with previous statements from Oz.

In his work as a celebrity doctor, Oz co-wrote a column that repeatedly highlighted concerns about the health effects of hydraulic fracturing, or hydraulic fracturing, the drilling technique that made Pennsylvania a major producer. gas. In 2017, the column highlighted research indicating that climate change posed a threat to public health.

In previous comments to Inside Climate News in March, Brittany Yanick, spokesperson for Oz, said he “has always supported fracking and a strong national energy industry.”

David McCormick, a former hedge fund executive running against Oz, took a similar stance on energy. His campaign website lists “establishing American energy independence” as a top issue, highlighting Pennsylvania’s role as the top energy-producing state.

Although his website does not mention climate change, McCormick spoke about the issue in 2008 when he served in the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. In a speech on China’s “environmentally sustainable growth”, McCormick called climate change a “global challenge” and encouraged the Bush administration’s efforts to reach an international agreement. (Bush had notoriously withdrawn the United States from the Kyoto Protocol climate accord.)

“That to me is the big story,” Masur said, “how candidates easily and voluntarily change jobs.”

McCormick and Oz have spent millions of dollars attacking each other through publicity, but in recent weeks a third contestant, Kathy Barnette, has become a virtual link to them from relative obscurity. Like her rivals, Barnette has said little about climate change or energy. Its website lists energy independence as a “day one” issue, saying it 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 silent on his positions on climate change and energy.

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In a previous Senate race in 2016, Fetterman said he supports a moratorium on fracking in the state unless Pennsylvania passes a tax on natural gas extraction — it’s the only major oil and gas producer without such a tax — and “the toughest environmental regulations in this country.” “.

Fetterman also signed a pledge to withhold any campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry.

But last year Fetterman said he opposed the fracking ban, telling WESA public radio that “what I hope we will do is we will make sure that ‘there will finally be a de facto moratorium because the transition will be towards green and renewable’. energy.”

This month, Fetterman told StateImpact Pennsylvania, an NPR project, that “we need to transition to making investments to produce American green energy on an ongoing basis and moving towards that, but for 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 doesn’t actually mention climate change. The website also calls climate change an “existential threat,” adding, “we need to move 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 gas drilling district, staked a position slightly to the right of Fetterman. During a debate in April, Lamb said that “the single technology that has allowed us to reduce our carbon emissions the most in the United States is fracking because it has taken so much market share from coal,” according to City. & State Pennsylvania. He added that it “must be done responsibly”.

Lamb’s campaign website says greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced to zero by 2050 to avoid the worst of a “global climate catastrophe”. But he also says “We have to be honest about the fact that natural gas is an essential deck fuel that helps us keep people warm and lights on at a price people can afford, and it’s made in the USA”.

The site also says Lamb supported tighter regulations on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, and that “we need to learn how to capture carbon and methane throughout the distribution system.”

A third candidate, Malcom Kenyatta, aligned himself with the more progressive wing of the party on climate and energy, but polls show him far behind. In response to questions sent to candidates by StateImpact Pennsylvania, Kenyatta called for an end to new “tax breaks or incentives for big polluters,” and said he supports stopping new drilling on federal lands. Notably, such a ban would have little to no impact on drilling in Pennsylvania, where the vast majority of wells are on private land.

Although Yost said climate change and the environment did not emerge as top issues in the primary, that could change in the general election when the contrast between the 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 crucial for the country’s climate policy. If the Republicans take control, there will be little chance that President Biden will advance any of his climate agendas.

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