HARRISBURG, Pa. — In Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate Democratic primary, where there are few differences over issues, jousting over natural gas drilling is providing an opening.
It flared in recent days over the question of campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, while two of the three candidates declared their support for a halt to hydraulic fracturing on both public and private lands.
Fracking, the drilling technology that has helped make Pennsylvania the nation’s No. 2 natural gas producer, has divided the Democratic Party over its geopolitical and economic value when weighed against its real or potential harm to health and the environment.
Two years ago, all four Democrats running for Pennsylvania governor opposed a broad moratorium on fracking. Rather, the four — including Gov. Tom Wolf and current Senate hopeful Katie McGinty — supported a moratorium limited to drilling in state parks and forests and in the Delaware River Basin.
That is flipped in the Democratic field seeking the party’s nod in the April 26 primary election to challenge Republican incumbent Pat Toomey.
Media darling and small-town mayor John Fetterman and former Navy vice admiral and ex-Congressman Joe Sestak both support a halt to fracking, at least until there is stronger regulation. McGinty, a former top-level environmental adviser in Washington and Harrisburg, also supports stronger regulation, but not a broad moratorium.
The divide over fracking is reflective of the differences between Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, who has come out for a complete ban on fracking, and Hillary Clinton, who has not.
David Masur, executive director of the Philadelphia-based environmental advocacy group PennEnvironment, said a fracking ban is an important wedge issue for Democratic primary voters in a race where there aren’t many policy differences.
“They’re going to be the Bernie Sanders people; they’re going to be the most excited people in the Democratic primary, the people who are the most frustrated in the institution of politics,” Masur said.
PennEnvironment, with some 150,000 members and volunteers, opposes fracking because the industry hasn’t shown that it is able and willing to do it without endangering health and the environment, Masur said.
Still, President Barack Obama never called for a ban. Neither has Wolf or Pennsylvania’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, who sponsored legislation to allow the federal government to regulate fracking.
Relatively unspoken is the devastating economic blow the industry says a moratorium would level on Pennsylvania and the rest of the nation. While the industry insists its practices are safe and state regulations are strong, it remains toxic enough to some liberal voters that Fetterman is trying to tie it to McGinty.
In a Feb. 3 blast email, Fetterman’s campaign promoted a 53-second online video accusing McGinty of taking “at least $198,600 from the oil and gas industry.”
The $198,600 came from third-party tallies that nevertheless include no contribution from an exploration company or an industry group. Perhaps the closest drilling-industry donors were exploration firm executives and employees who gave about $18,000 to McGinty’s failed gubernatorial campaign in 2013 and 2014.
Otherwise, many of the contributions cited by Fetterman came from professionals or executives in fields such as the law, lobbying, utilities or the downstream petroleum industry.
Some of the contributions on the list are head scratchers.
It includes $1,500 from McGinty’s campaign chairman, former Gov. Ed Rendell. Asked about it, Rendell said his only tie to fracking is that he believes it can be “enormously beneficial if properly regulated,” but he gave money to McGinty’s campaign, he said, because she would make a great senator.
One listed giver of $1,000 is Pittsburgh lawyer Bill Caroselli, who successfully sued an exploration company over its landowner royalty practices.
“I am absolutely anti-fracking,” Caroselli said.
McGinty’s campaign, meanwhile, responded that Fetterman’s broad definition of fracking interests would include contributions to both his campaign and Sestak’s.
A ban on fracking is not necessarily gospel in the environmental advocacy corps — McGinty was endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters — and G. Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, said it’s not clear that the stance will help Fetterman or Sestak.
But, he said, it is likely to be part of their campaign to highlight where McGinty may not be as liberal and help Sestak and Fetterman even the playing field with a candidate who has considerable support from the party establishment.
“You’re going to see more of them,” Madonna said. “This is just the beginning.”
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