Pennsylvania is not only poised to be a clincher in a tight presidential election — the state is also at the center of a pitched national debate about energy and climate change.
Up and down the Keystone State ballot, candidates are running campaigns either pushing renewable energy or vowing to cut regulations to boost a struggling oil and gas industry.
Central to the debate: the role of domestic fuel from the state’s massive Marcellus Shale play.
“In the same way Pennsylvania is a swing state in the local election, it’s been crucial to the way the whole country deals with the environment and energy,” said Josh McNeil, executive director of the Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania. “The oil industry started in Pennsylvania, the coal industry ran the state for decades, and now it’s at the center of the argument around natural gas.”
Given Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes, it was no surprise Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump traveled to Pittsburgh last month to personally woo the oil and gas industry with his top energy adviser, oil tycoon Harold Hamm.
The TV personality and real estate mogul, hoping to erode his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s slight lead, vowed to roll back federal regulations, open public lands to drilling and advance gas projects facing increasing grass-roots pushback. The message appeared to resonate with local companies facing cratered gas prices that have been forced to shutter rigs and lay off workers.
But energy insiders in Pennsylvania say the state has an “all of the above and below ground” energy policy that includes renewable energy, offering an opportunity for Clinton and other Democrats to make headway by calling for more clean energy and climate action.
To that point, Clinton has called for a rapid expansion of solar power while maintaining natural gas as a bridge fuel in a carbon-constrained future. The candidate’s comments, including a wary approach to the use of hydraulic fracturing, is energizing clean energy advocates and green energy groups in the state. McNeil said the message is also taking hold in other elections.
“It’s a bellwether state,” said McNeil. “When Pennsylvania moves toward clean energy and away from pollution, it’s something the country takes notice of.”
McNeil said the same issues are being debated in the state’s neck-and-neck Senate race between Republican incumbent Pat Toomey and Democratic nominee Katie McGinty.
While McGinty, former head of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and a former top White House climate official, has attracted endorsements and support from political action committees supporting climate action, Toomey has been targeted for his connections to fossil fuels by groups like the League of Conservation Voters.
Here’s a look at some of Pennsylvania’s most pressing environmental and energy issues:
Few energy issues have reached such political heights as hydraulic fracturing, a practice that involves injecting fluids at high pressure into the ground to release natural gas stored within the rock.
In Pennsylvania, the technology has literally changed the landscape of northeastern and southwestern Pennsylvania.
While Trump has said he wants to cut regulations on fossil fuel production, he’s perplexed energy executives by supporting local control of drilling. Hamm later said Trump didn’t understand the concept and fully supports fracking.
Clinton, on the other hand, has called for careful gas production and said on CNN that “by the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place.”
The issue of fracking is likewise trickling into down-ballot elections between Toomey, a top recipient of oil and gas donations, and his rival McGinty, who has called for a more careful approach.
“My view with respect to fracking is we need to regulate it, zone it, tax it,” McGinty said in July at the Democratic National Convention.
Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for attorney general, has also raised fracking as a campaign issue in his race against state Sen. John Rafferty (R).
While Shapiro has called for measures to “get tough on frackers,” including litigation and tougher penalties, Rafferty’s campaign has cautioned against targeting a single industry or making commitments to strengthening one unit of the office.
Along with the development of Pennsylvania’s glut of oil and gas has come a growing fight over the expansion of natural gas pipelines, compressor stations and other infrastructure.
On tap is a legal battle targeting the $1.2 billion PennEast Pipeline project, which would stretch from the gas fields of Pennsylvania into New Jersey. Environmentalists who sued the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for approving the PennEast Pipeline say the agency’s process violates the Constitution’s due process requirements (Greenwire, March 3).
Earlier this month, FERC staff in a draft environmental impact statement found effects from the project could be reduced to “less than significant levels” if PennEast followed certain mitigation measures.
Trump, for one, has vowed to speed the government’s approval of energy infrastructure projects, including gas pipelines needed to transport fuel from the shale plays to market. He’s also called for streamlining the federal permitting process, accusing the Obama administration of holding up “billions of dollars in projects” that could have created jobs.
Activists opposed to the proliferation of gas and oil infrastructure are backing Clinton, who on the campaign trail in the Northeast criticized FERC for failing to fully weigh concerns about climate change and the impacts of energy development on communities, a move environmentalists praised.
Yet the issue has made for tricky footing for Clinton, who has stated her opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline but refrained from taking a position on the Dakota Access pipeline project in North Dakota after the Obama administration moved to freeze construction on a part of the line.
Another hot-button issue in the Keystone State is a severance tax on the oil and gas industry — or the lack thereof.
In its latest budget, the state avoided imposing new taxes on the natural gas industry, but Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said he’ll ask for one next year, and the Republican-led Legislature may come under pressure to allow it.
Wolf was elected in 2014 after promising to crack down on the gas industry. One of his key talking points was the need for a tax on natural gas production, known as a severance tax.
McNeil said the state’s Republican-led Legislature has worked hard to keep a severance tax from moving forward, and Pennsylvania is one of the only states that doesn’t have such a mechanism. These days, statewide candidates are making it a campaign issue. McNeil said billions of dollars for the state is being left on the table even as schools close.
“It was something a lot of people ran on in the last cycle and something that hasn’t happened in a state that’s got serious financial difficulties,” McNeil said. “Voters have found it astounding we don’t have it yet.”
Pennsylvania hasn’t voted Republican in a White House election since 1988, but it remains on the quadrennial swing state list. Celebrity Democratic strategist James Carville once called Pennsylvania “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in between,” and that is certainly reflected in its presidential voting patterns. The customary battleground is in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where moderate Republican women and independents usually hold the key. This time around, they are seen as more likely to favor Clinton than Trump. Here are the three most recent presidential polls in the Keystone State:
Bloomberg: Clinton 48 percent, Trump 39 percent. Poll of 806 likely voters taken Oct. 7-11, with a 3.5-point margin of error.
Susquehanna University: Clinton 44 percent, Trump 40 percent. Poll of 764 likely voters taken Oct. 4-9, with a 3.5-point margin of error.
CBS News/YouGov: Clinton 48 percent, Trump 40 percent. Poll of 992 likely voters taken Oct. 5-7, with a 4.2-point margin of error.
The battle between Sen. Pat Toomey (R) and Democrat Katie McGinty may do more to determine which party controls the upper chamber than any other Senate contest in the country. Polls have been tight for months; Toomey has some built-in, institutional advantages but may not be able to overcome a big Clinton victory — if one develops.
Sen. Pat Toomey
The fate of Republican Sen. Pat Toomey could help determine whether Republicans keep control of the Senate.Photo courtesy of the Toomey campaign.
Even though Pennsylvania has been considered a swing state for almost three decades at the presidential level, that is not reflected in its congressional delegation. Republicans controlled the most recent redistricting process, and it shows: The GOP holds a 13-5 edge among Pennsylvania’s House members.
Still, there is one genuine competitive House race in the state, and a few others bear watching. Heading the list is the open-seat contest in the 8th District in the Philadelphia suburbs, where Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R) is retiring. The Republican nominee isBrian Fitzpatrick, a retired FBI agent and the congressman’s brother. The Democrat is state Rep. Steve Santarsiero. President Obama and Mitt Romney essentially tied in the district four years ago.
In a district that stretches from the Philly suburbs to Reading, freshman Rep. Ryan Costello(R) is favored over Democrat Mike Parrish, a businessman and Iraq War veteran. Romney won that district, the 6th, by 6 points, but it could be affected by the presidential outcome this time.
Democratic Senate nominee Katie McGinty stumps in Scranton, Pa., with Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). Photo courtesy of the McGinty campaign.
The same is true in the southeastern Pennsylvania 16th District, where 10-term Rep. Joe Pitts (R) is retiring. State Sen.Lloyd Smucker (R) is favored overChristina Hartman (D), a consultant to nonprofit organizations. The district also favored Romney by 6 points.
An unusual contest is in the Altoona-based 9th District, where House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster(R) is seeking an eighth full term. Shuster’s Democratic challenger is businessman Art Halvorson — who ran unsuccessfully against Shuster in the Republican primaries this year and in 2014. He became the Democratic nominee after no Democrat came forward to challenge the incumbent, and while he ran to the congressman’s right on most issues, his populist message could have some appeal this year. Shuster must still be considered the favorite.