Biden is trying to have it both ways on fracking. That could cost him in Pa. | Mark O’Keefe

August 5, 2020 6:30 am

PHILADELPHIA, PA – MARCH 10: Democratic Presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden addresses the media and a small group of supporters with his wife Dr. Jill Biden during a primary night event on March 10, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Six states – Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Washington, and North Dakota held nominating contests today. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Joe Biden could find himself in a lose-lose position over the issue of fracking, especially in Pennsylvania.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Pennsylvania in the upcoming Nov. 3 presidential election. It’s tough to see how Biden or President Donald Trump can win the presidential election without capturing the state’s 20 electoral college votes, which ties with Illinois for the country’s fifth-highest amount,

Trump won Pennsylvania by a little more than 44,000 votes in 2016. He was the first Republican nominee to carry Pennsylvania since President George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Trump’s calls for a return to manufacturing resonated with many residents in areas where steel and coal once were king but had been sidelined over the years.

Trump has continued to sound the same message in his 2020 campaign with his wholehearted support for fracking, a technique designed to recover gas and oil from shale rock.  

Meanwhile, Biden is trying to have it both ways. While he vows not to outlaw fracking — as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and other, now-departed 2020 hopefuls did — he has promised to ban new permits on federal lands and waters. Control over state lands would continue to reside with state governments.

However, he’ll face intense pressure from supporters both for and against fracking, leading up to the presidential election. And how he reacts to the demands, could determine if he wins Pennsylvania or not.

On the one hand, are the progressives in the Democratic Party who contend fracking encourages reliance on fossil fuels and attracts investments from energy firms and governments. They want to spend more money on renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power.

They will undoubtedly be trying to force Biden to ban fracking or at least make it harder for the industry to succeed.

If Biden doesn’t yield to the pressure, he could lose the votes of many progressives, especially in the southeastern part of Pennsylvania, where about a third of the state’s residents live.

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Biden will also face pressure from fracking supporters, who maintain that the industry has been a godsend for Pennsylvania, employing 26,000 people and helping many other sectors that have benefited from the job gains.

Many of them live in the southwestern and northeastern parts of the state, where Trump won overwhelmingly in 2020. Biden will face the tough task of trying to convince them that he’s on their side.

Biden will have to walk a tightrope on fracking, knowing that a misstep could cost him the election. But there is an opening for Biden, and he should embrace it.

Last month Attorney General Josh Shapiro released a grand jury report, criticizing the state departments of Health and Environmental Protection for not helping residents who have been adversely affected by water and air pollution caused by the fracking industry.

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“This report is about preventing the failures of our past from continuing into our future,” said Shapiro. “It’s about the big fights we must take on to protect Pennsylvanians — to ensure that their voices are not drowned out by those with bigger wallets and better connections. There remains a profound gap between our Constitutional mandate for clean air and pure water, and the realities facing Pennsylvanians who live in the shadow of fracking giants and their investors.”  

The grand jurors concluded that while the Wolf administration has forced through some improvements at the agencies, there continues to be much room for meaningful change to occur.  

The Grand Jury’s report details eight recommendations, including:  

  • Expanding no-drill zones in Pennsylvania from the required 500 feet to 2,500 feet;
  • Requiring fracking companies to disclose all chemicals used in drilling and hydraulic fracturing;
  • Requiring the regulation of gathering lines, used to transport unconventional gas hundreds of miles;
  • Adding up all sources of air pollution in a given area to accurately assess air quality;
  • Requiring safer transport of the contaminated waste created from fracking sites;
  • Conducting a comprehensive health response to the effects of living near unconventional drilling sites;
  • Limiting the ability of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection employees to be employed in the private sector immediately after leaving the Department;
  • Allowing the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General original criminal jurisdiction over unconventional oil and gas companies.

Of course, the report fell on deaf ears, particularly among Republicans in the state Legislature whose coffers are filled regularly by the fracking industry.

But this is where Biden could help himself politically in Pennsylvania. He should give his full support to the recommendations.

It would give him a chance to say that he doesn’t want to ban fracking but wants to make the industry safer for residents who live and work in areas where fracking occurs.

That should please the progressives. It might also please moderates, who don’t want to see fracking banned but want to see it made safer.

Biden should talk about the recommendations a lot, both in his advertising and public speeches. It could stir debate both here and across the nation about fracking and ways to improve the industry. Biden could use it as a talking point in his debate with Trump.

Biden could propose making fracking clean and safe. Trump, meanwhile, would be touting fracking but ignoring the problems it causes. Sounds familiar, right?

In the end, by embracing the grand jury’s recommendations, Biden could turn lose-lose into win-win.  

Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.

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Mark O'Keefe
Mark O'Keefe

Opinion contributor Mark O'Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa.,  is the former editorial page editor of the Herald-Standard of Uniontown. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star's Commentary Page.