John Fetterman’s Fracking Liabilities

On dirty energy, the Lt. Governor is out of step with Pennsylvania Democrats.

On dirty energy, the Lt. Governor is out of step with Pennsylvania Democrats.

by Peter Hart

Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman is attempting to stake out the progressive lane in the early stage of the 2022 Democratic Senate primary. And while he basks in positive press from national political reporters, Fetterman is out of touch with Pennsylvania Democrats on the key issue of fracking. 

Over the years, Fetterman has flipped his position, broken promises, and ignored significant racial and environmental justice issues in his own backyard. His embrace of fracking presents a significant political liability — one that has left grassroots activists and elected officials across the state clamoring for other progressive candidates to jump into the race.

Fetterman on Fracking: Flip Flops and Broken Promises 

Fetterman’s political career is marred by broken promises over fracking. On several occasions, he promised to stand with communities fighting the powerful industry, only to abandon those commitments soon thereafter. 

In his 2016 Senate campaign, Fetterman signed a pledge supporting a statewide moratorium on fracking. At one debate, he criticized the pro-drilling record of rival candidate Katie McGinty, saying she “brought fracking to Pennsylvania.” Fetterman told McGinty: “You can’t have it both ways. There’s no such thing as a green fracker.” That year, he was a top supporter of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, saying that the senator’s call for a fracking ban would be a “winning issue” in Pennsylvania.

But in 2020, Fetterman took the opposite position, claiming that anti-fracking candidates would lose Pennsylvania. Why the sudden shift? Fetterman has claimed that stronger regulations have made fracking safer. But he’s never explained what those were, exactly — and the mounting scientific evidence of the serious hazards associate with fracking tells us all we need to know about the threats that drilling poses to our health, our air and our water.

It’s not the only time he’s tried to have it both ways. In 2018, Fetterman received a guided tour of construction of the massive Mariner East pipeline in Delaware and Chester counties, which has contaminated drinking water and created massive sinkholes. He promised to help the communities thrown into chaos by the pipeline. However, Fetterman never took up the issue in any way, and even defended Governor Tom Wolf amid reports that the FBI was conducting an ethics investigation into his handling of permit approvals.

Fetterman’s reversal on fracking also runs close to home. He supported a hugely unpopular fracking well proposed at the US Steel’s Edgar Thomson mill in his hometown, even while opposition from residents and local municipalities was piling up. Minimizing residents’ valid concerns, Fetterman flippantly stated this well — which would have been drilled in a community already dealing with numerous environmental justice issues — would be like “baking a loaf of bread in a pizza shop.

Luckily, grassroots activists continued that fight. Their opposition forced state regulators to suspend review of the project, and in May U.S. Steel announced it was abandoning the proposal

Fetterman’s Fracking Position is WAY Out of Line with Pennsylvania Democrats

Fetterman’s support for fracking is out of step with Democratic voters in the state, and voters overall. An August 2020 CBS/YouGov poll found that 75% of Pennsylvania Democrats oppose fracking, as do 52% of voters overall. The same is true in Fetterman’s home county of Allegheny County. A 2020 Franklin & Marshall poll found that 62% of county voters support a ban on fracking.

Those sentiments have been evident in local elections. State Representative Summer Lee was elected as a first-time candidate in 2018, thanks in part to a campaign strongly opposing the Edgar Thomson well. Two years later, Lee crushed a challenger who tried to use the fracking well as a wedge issue. Fetterman’s successor, Braddock Mayor Chardae Jones, has said she opposed the well because it is so unpopular among residents. 

This is all backed up by a 2020 Change Research poll, commissioned by Food & Water Action, which showed that the vast majority of Democrats in the Mon Valley — 70 percent — opposed the proposed well. Only 17% supported Fetterman’s position.

Fetterman Chooses Corporations Over Environmental Justice

By embracing fracking, Fetterman is siding with corporations over communities. And that’s true about more than just fracking; Fetterman has also discounted and underplayed Allegheny County’s significant air pollution problem, which ranks among the worst in the country. Allegheny County children are nearly three times more likely to have asthma than the national average; kids living near the major polluting facilities in the Mon Valley are even more in danger of respiratory disease.

In response to news that U.S. Steel would decrease capacity at their Clairton Coke Works facility, the single biggest polluter in the region, Fetterman said, “I live here… Is the air Rocky Mountain fresh? No, but it’s OK.”

Democratic Leaders Across Pennsylvania Are Expressing Concerns About Fetterman

Pennsylvania State Representative Danielle Friel Otten, who led Fetterman on a tour of the Mariner East pipeline problems in 2018, had this to say:

‘No one should have to live in these conditions,’ were John Fetterman’s words after he sat in my neighbor’s family room with me and walked through their backyards to see the devastation that Mariner East is having on communities like mine. Voters in Chester County will need to understand Fetterman’s confusing public positions on fossil fuel expansion, fracking and the suffering that communities are facing in the name of jobs, as he now runs for Senate.

State Representative Summer Lee, who represents Fetterman’s community of Braddock, has been outspoken in criticizing the Lieutenant Governor over a 2013 incident where Fetterman chased a young black man, Christopher Miyares, with a shotgun as he jogged through Fetterman’s neighborhood. Rather than apologizing, Fetterman pointed to Miyares’ later conviction of an entirely unrelated crime. Rep. Lee called Fetterman’s comments “unacceptable” and “egregious,” and wrote that “Even if John doesn’t feel he has anything to take responsibility for, it’s disappointing he’d deal in harmful dog whistles.” 

Braddock Mayor Chardae Jones, had this to say about Fetterman’s position on drilling: 

“I’ve seen that John Fetterman weighed in on the issue of fracking quite a few times…. Where he stands now, I’m not certain.”

Northampton County Councilmember Tara Zrinski, who gave Fetterman the fracking ban pledge that he signed in 2016:

“It is disappointing that Fetterman made a commitment to me and communities around Pennsylvania that he would fight to stop fracking, and then turned around and became a staunch supporter of new fracking.”

East Pittsburgh Borough Councilwoman Stacey Simon, who took action to protect the Mon Valley from the US Steel fracking well:

“East Pittsburgh residents oppose this well, and will continue to despite Merrion’s threats. It would be very helpful for John Fetterman to voice his support for our community. Unfortunately, thus far he has chosen to stick with the fracking industry.”

So What Does Fetterman Really Believe?

Fetterman’s appeal has often focused on surface issues: His tattoos, photos of the family dog, and his preference for one regional convenience store chain over its rival.

But aside from legalizing marijuana and a $15/hour minimum wage, Fetterman’s views on important policy issues remain unclear. Many lawmakers have criticized Fetterman on running a campaign based more on image than substance.

State Representative Jessica Benham, responded this way to a Fetterman fundraising email touting his tattoos: “I. Don’t. Care. About. Your. Tattoos. How anything resembling an apology? Or heck, since that’s apparently a bridge too far, an email about anything of substance or policy?”

State Representative Austin Davis wrote this about the Miyares shotgun incident: “I agree w/ my colleague @SummerForPA! The comments that @JohnFetterman continues to make are deeply troubling…”

State Representative Melissa Shusterman wrote, “I’m betting a white guy who went to Harvard whose campaign is based on sheetz versus wawa is not the answer to Trump. A woman would be DRAGGED for a lack of seriousness if that was her campaign.”

Democrats Need a Strong Candidate for the Pennsylvania Senate Seat

Democrats have a razor-thin majority in the Senate, and the race for Pennsylvania’s open seat is a key opportunity to increase that majority. To win that race, Democrats need to field a candidate that can champion a strong climate vision and stand up to the fracking industry.