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Why fracking got so much airtime in the home stretch of Trump’s campaign

Voters in the rural Pennsylvania counties where fracking is concentrated may have outsize electoral power this year.

A fracking drilling pad for oil and gas operates in Robinson Township, Pennsylvania, in 2017.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

In the final week of his campaign, President Donald Trump has reemphasized his pro-fracking message. The primary target: Pennsylvania.

Both candidates have frequented Pennsylvania, the nation’s No. 2 natural gas producer, in the final week of the race. It is a critical swing state this year, with FiveThirtyEight projecting that it is most likely to be the tipping point in deciding the presidency. According to the site’s latest polling average, former Vice President Joe Biden’s lead over Trump in the state has narrowed, but he is still ahead by 4.7 points.

Vying for votes, the Trump campaign has played up his support for fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, as a selling point in Pennsylvania over the past week.

Fracking was a contentious topic in the presidential debates, with Trump claiming that Biden would ban it as part of his plan to address climate change if he wins. Biden denied those claims, clarifying, “I said no fracking on federal land.” (As Rebecca Leber reported for Mother Jones, that would leave the vast majority of fracking unaffected because 90 percent takes place on state and private land.)

In the final days of the campaign, Trump further elevated the issue. In between his four rallies in Pennsylvania on Saturday, he released an executive order, which he claimed would “protect fracking,” but it just calls for his administration to study the economic impact of a fracking ban. He tweeted out the new order along with dozens of other pro-fracking messages over the past few days.

Could Trump’s pro-fracking blitz drive higher voter turnout in rural Pennsylvania, paving a path to victory? Let’s walk through what we know.

Pennsylvanians are divided on fracking

The fracking boom over the past decade has left Pennsylvanians with mixed views of the industry.

The arrival of widespread fracking in 2008 led to the creation of tens of thousands of jobs. The boom also boosted surrounding industries.

A 2016 study published in Resource and Energy Economics surveyed job growth in the Marcellus shale region (including Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia). It found that “Employment and wages increased in the construction, transportation and accommodations industries as a result of the fracking boom.” However, the study also revealed that growth in overall employment from fracking was short-lived, declining four years after a boom.

Recent trends in Pennsylvania show that the fracking industry is now struggling. Jobs are in fact decreasing in the sector. According to statistics commissioned by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, the natural gas industry, including extraction, transmission, and electricity generation, employed just under 24,000 people in 2019. Jobs in the sector have shrunk 7 percent since 2017, and only represent a tiny fraction of the state’s overall employment.

In 2019, Pennsylvania produced a record amount of natural gas through fracking, but the glut in gas has driven prices down and left top producers saddled with debt.

Fracking has also caused health and environmental damage, including water contamination, and is likely a major source of emissions of methane, an exceptionally potent greenhouse gas. In late June, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro released the results of a two-year investigation that widely condemned the industry for its pollution and faulted the government for not holding corporations in check.

The varied impacts of fracking are reflected in the ambivalent public perception of the industry. Fracking has support from a narrow majority (52 percent) of sampled likely voters, while 27 percent oppose it, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll conducted in late October.

Why Pennsylvania’s pro-fracking constituency might still be critical for Trump

Despite the lack of broad support for fracking in Pennsylvania, Trump’s pro-fracking position could still pay off in the form of increased turnout from his base: At 86 percent, Republican support for the industry is much higher than it is across all likely voters.

The majority of fracking wells are located in Pennsylvania’s Republican counties; Robinson Meyer reported for the Atlantic that four years ago, higher voter turnout in these areas helped Trump clinch his narrow victory over Hillary Clinton. He gained 90,000 votes in the top 12 fracking counties, allowing him to beat back Clinton’s urban support, winning the state by under 45,000 votes.

Trump is seeing less support in his stronghold counties this year, according to a recent Monmouth University poll that shows him with a 20 percent lead over Biden compared to a 34 percent lead in 2016 in these counties. So increasing voter turnout in these areas is critical for Trump.

Mohamed Rali Badissy, an assistant professor of law at Pennsylvania State University who focuses on energy policy, sees merit to Trump’s strategy from an electoral perspective. “There is a lot of upside to that turnout effort, so it’s a smart bet at the end of the day,” he said.

Badissy said the message has been potent on TV where a pro-fracking ad has been in heavy rotation. The ad, created by the Trump-affiliated super PAC America First Action, features a third-generation oil and gas worker who says, “When Joe Biden says he’d eliminate fracking, he’s talking about my job, he’s talking about our future.”

As the election results start rolling in from Pennsylvania, the number of Trump votes in rural counties that host the most fracking sites will signal whether his focus on fracking paid off.

The broader reckoning over fracking

Despite some rural support for fracking, recent polling shows that a majority of Pennsylvanians support increased electricity generation from renewable energy. But Rachel Meyer, a teacher who lives in the fracking hot spot of Beaver County and volunteers for the environmental group Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community, told Vox that some are concerned about the transition.

“Certainly there are people who, with good intentions, are concerned about the fracking industry leaving. And certainly there are communities who think, you know, we need this to come into our communities — there still is that,” she said.

In this election cycle, this led some natural gas workers to vocally support Trump. The Boilermakers Local 154 union endorsed Trump and refuted Biden’s assertion in a town hall that he had the union’s backing.

Other unions threw their weight behind Biden, assuming that he will maintain the status quo.

Shannon Smith, communications and development manager at the nonprofit FracTracker Alliance, said, “I’ve heard from union leaders recently that they aren’t going to vote for Trump because they trust that Biden is not going to instate a fracking ban,” which she adds wouldn’t even be feasible.

But ultimately, she said, natural gas production will have to come down. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, carbon dioxide emissions, including those from burning natural gas, have to be decreased to net zero by 2050 for the world to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. Biden’s climate plan calls for investment in communities that have been dependent on fossil fuels, which Smith sees as critical.

“We need candidates who are going to help figure out that transition, because it will happen,” she said.

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