Kamala Harris has previously said she supports a ban on hydraulic fracking, but last night she used the vice presidential debate to reiterate Joe Biden’s promise that a Biden-Harris administration would not move to halt the fossil fuel extraction technique, even as scientists warn that it is a driver of climate change.
This pledge — made while Harris’s own state is experiencing a climate-intensified “gigafire” — has been depicted by national reporters as savvy and smart politics for a Democratic ticket that supposedly must embrace fracking in order to win the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania.
There’s just one problem with that storyline: It isn’t substantiated by empirical data. Indeed, the idea that a fracking ban is political poison in Pennsylvania is a fantastical tale fabricated by a national press corps that refuses to let public opinion data get in the way of fossil fuel propaganda and a manufactured narrative.
For months, Washington reporters — egged on by Donald Trump, a pathological liar — have suggested that Democrats would be risking political death in Pennsylvania by proposing to restrict fracking. The New York Times headline blared: “In Crucial Pennsylvania, Democrats Worry a Fracking Ban Could Sink Them.” The Los Angeles Times followed that up with its own headline: “Joe Biden’s Pennsylvania Hurdle: Voters Who Fear a California-Style Energy Plan.” Quartz last night asserted that a call for a fracking ban “tempts political suicide in swing states like Pennsylvania.”
Somehow unmentioned is polling data showing that Pennsylvania voters support a crackdown on fracking.
Pennsylvania Polling Shows Support for Banning Fracking
A January poll of Pennsylvania voters from Franklin and Marshall University found that “more believe the environmental risks (49%) of natural gas drilling outweigh the economic benefits than believe the economic benefits outweigh the environmental risks (38%).” The same poll found that “more registered voters favor (48%) a ban on hydraulic fracturing than oppose it (39%).”
While Washington-based reporters remain loath to mention this data, the media in the state aren’t: “Poll: Pennsylvanians Favor Statewide Ban On Fracking,” read a local CBS headline that was apparently too inconvenient to be mentioned by the creators of the national media narrative.
Since that poll emerged, another more recent poll illustrated much the same sentiment.
An August CBS/YouGov poll found that 52 percent of Pennsylvania voters support a fracking ban. That includes not only a big majority of Democratic voters, but also strong majorities among traditional swing voters: 62 percent of self-identified moderate voters and 55 percent of registered independent voters support a ban.
A separate August survey by the Global Strategy Group and Climate Power 2020 found that 50 percent of Pennsylvania voters have an unfavorable view of the fracking industry, while only 32 percent have a favorable view, with a large majority supporting a phase out of fracking.
The numbers were even worse for fracking industry CEOs, who were viewed favorably by 21 percent of Pennsylvania voters, and unfavorably by 53 percent of voters. The same survey found large majorities supporting tough restrictions on fracking and phasing all of it out in the future.
“Political Maneuvers and Opinions Appear Largely Out of Touch With Reality”
It is certainly true that supporting a fracking ban is not a total political slam dunk in Pennsylvania — the industry is an employer in the state, the jobs are often unionized, and the CBS/YouGov poll showed strong support for fracking among a majority of self-identified Republican voters.
This explains why Trump — who is down in the polls in Pennsylvania — has been trying to bait Biden into an argument over fracking, as a way to consolidate Trump’s own GOP base in the state and demoralize progressives.
However, the idea that political reality in Pennsylvania obviously requires Biden to respond to that GOP horseshit by doubling down on fossil fuel production — that’s horseshit, too.
In recent years, the fossil fuel industry in Pennsylvania has faced intensifying criticism for its pollution, and now faces law enforcement action over allegations of revolving door corruption and public health hazards.
Those headline-grabbing scandals have coincided with the recent polling trends showing increasing support for restricting or banning fracking — there is no overwhelming evidence that opposing fracking is “political suicide” in Pennsylvania.
“Many pundits have proclaimed that opposition to fracking is a political taboo in the commonwealth, and some candidates even try to project that an opponent is opposed to fracking for political gain. But those political maneuvers and opinions appear largely out of touch with reality,” the Pittsburgh City Paper wrote in August.
The paper added that the CBS poll “goes against the conventional wisdom that politicians can’t run on anti-fracking policies in Pennsylvania. In fact, in fracking-friendly Allegheny County, three political candidates won their primary elections this year while running on strong criticism of fracking and its related industries.”
Our Perilous Climate Future
Biden has rightly criticized Trump as a “climate arsonist” who ignores science, but his own hostility to a fracking ban isn’t some empirical science-based decision — climate experts say we must ban fracking, and polls show that you don’t need to be a fracking shill to win in Pennsylvania.
Biden’s posture reflects the fact that he is an ancient, 1990s-style politician who has always sought to separate himself from his party’s more progressive base.
In this case, that meant he started his presidential campaign promising only a “middle ground” on climate policy. And now it means he and his running mate periodically boast to voters that they wouldn’t possibly consider banning fracking, even amid a climate emergency that threatens the habitability of the entire planet — and yes, even amid climate-intensified fires that are right now burning down the home state of the Democratic vice presidential nominee.
The Democratic ticket is certainly far better than Trump on the climate issue — but that ticket is now embracing a pro-fossil-fuel position when there is no imperative to do so. That’s a real problem when time on the climate clock is running out.