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Fracking, Pennsylvania, and the 2020 Election

With just days until the 2020 presidential election, Pennsylvania remains a hotly contested state. Both candidates, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, have made multiple stops in the Commonwealth with one topic, the natural gas industry - commonly reduced to simply ‘fracking’, being discussed by both.

Pennsylvania is and has historically been a battleground state. The state’s 20 electoral votes can determine an election, which makes the Commonwealth a valuable piece of the campaign puzzle. With that, issues facing Pennsylvanians are made into national issues as the eyes of the nation watch and speculate on how Pennsylvania will vote. Pennsylvania’s voting pattern has commonly been called the ‘T’; voters in central and northern Pennsylvania traditionally vote Republican, flanked by the traditionally Democratic voting cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Unconventional natural gas extraction is an issue that spans the entire state, but there is much more to the industry than just fracking.

President Trump’s stance on the industry is clear: He is pro-natural gas, and pro-industry in the state. He has often discredited concerns regarding climate change, going as far as removing the U.S. from the Paris Accord, which among other things, soothed the existential fear the natural gas and larger fossil fuel industry felt while worrying environmentalists.

Former VP Biden’s position is more opaque than Trump’s blanket openness to natural gas. Biden’s message has changed throughout his campaign. He stated earlier this year that he was against “new fracking” and calling for a “phase out” of fossil fuels during the final debate. Biden has since clarified his message, stating that rather than a fracking ban, he is opposed to extraction on federal lands and subsidies for the fossil fuel industry.

But, how much does fracking matter to Pennsylvanians? Polls have shown different attitudes toward fracking in the Commonwealth. A poll by Franklin & Marshall College earlier this year found that a very slim majority of Pennsylvanians support fracking, which is consistent with polls done at the national level, while a majority also believes that the environmental risks associated with fracking outweigh the potential economic benefits. However, more recent F&M polls indicated that energy is not the primary concern for Pa. voters, who are more interested in the pandemic.

A key point made consistently by the Trump campaign is the number of jobs at stake in Pennsylvania if fracking was banned. He has claimed that 600,000 Pennsylvanians would lose their jobs under a Biden administration. This figure was published in a study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but opponents’ estimate that the number of well-site jobs totals in the tens-of-thousands range. However, ancillary industries that support the natural gas industry would also be compromised in a complete fracking ban.

Exit polls on Tuesday will provide some insight on just how much the issue of fracking influenced Pennsylvania voters, who are also looking at national issues including the pandemic, the economy and social justice when making their choice. One certainty is that the winner will play a role in shaping the future of fracking in the Appalachian region and beyond.

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