In the battle for Pennsylvania’s competitive Senate seat this fall, candidates have spent recent weeks squabbling about the future of hydraulic fracturing in the state as well as taking aim at each other over campaign contributions tied to the energy industry.
But this isn’t a fight between Republican Sen. Pat Toomey and his challenger; it’s just the Democratic primary taking shape.
A trio of Democrats are vying in an April 26 primary for the right to take on Toomey in the Keystone State: former Rep. Joe Sestak, former White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Katie McGinty and Braddock, Pa., Mayor John Fetterman.
In the competition to win the Democratic nod, the candidates have split over energy policy, sparring over the issue in a recent debate at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and in a series of digital ads and newspaper op-eds.
On one side is McGinty, a former head of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, who has called fracking the state’s "secret sauce" for job growth, and on the other is Sestak, who has long supported a moratorium on drilling the oil-and-gas-rich Marcellus Shale.
In the middle is Fetterman, who has endorsed significantly stricter environmental regulations on the process and endorsed taxing natural gas drilling.
Although fracking rarely lands on top of the list of Pennsylvania voters’ concerns, according to Franklin & Marshall College Poll Director Terry Madonna, striking the right balance on the issue could still prove important to undecided voters — particularly the party’s more liberal wing found in Philadelphia and its suburbs — in a closely divided primary.
"Voters in the state are not opposed to fracking, and they don’t have an animosity toward the industry, toward the folks who do fracking," Madonna said. But he noted that voters have generally supported limits on the practice, like a moratorium on fracking on state public lands that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf reinstated in 2015.
"They don’t want any fracking on state forest lines and in our parks. We have a huge and extensive parks system in this state," Madonna said. "They want it done safely. They want to make sure the air is clean and the water is pure."
Sestak has taken the hardest line among the trio of candidates, arguing that hydraulic fracturing in the state should be suspended until stricter health and environmental regulations, including water protections, are enacted.
"Unfortunately, since the very beginning of the Marcellus Shale boom, too many of our leaders and regulators let the voice of the shale industry drown out the desires of Pennsylvanians to have safe water, and too many argued for industry interests to the detriment of Pennsylvanians," Sestak wrote in the York Daily Record earlier this month. His campaign supplied the op-ed along with a news release when asked for comment for this article.
The former House lawmaker — who lost the 2010 Senate race to Toomey by 2 percentage points but has been rebuffed by the Democratic establishment, who openly searched for another candidate this cycle — has also called for a ban on drilling until the state adopts a new severance tax.
Wolf proposed a 6.5 percent severance tax in his annual budget released this week, an increase over the 5 percent tax he unsuccessfully sought in his first year in office.
Sestak has also touted his ongoing opposition to fracking in a 20-second video highlighting remarks he made at last month’s Democratic primary debate.
"In 2010, when I ran for the U.S. Senate, I was for a moratorium on fracking, as I am today," Sestak states in the video.
McGinty has openly rejected Sestak’s proposed ban, arguing in both her failed 2014 gubernatorial primary bid and her current Senate campaign that hydraulic fracturing can be done safely while benefiting the state’s economy.
"I don’t support a moratorium," McGinty told NPR’s StateImpact Pennsylvania last month. She did not respond to a request for comment for this article. "I think the responsible production and use of the Marcellus Shale gas is actually part of the secret sauce as to how we will create jobs and how we will compete and win."
But McGinty — who served as Wolf’s chief of staff before stepping down to launch her Senate bid and is widely seen as the establishment Democrat in the contest — has drawn fire for her moderate stance from her competitors for the Democratic nod.
Fetterman launched a video attack against McGinty earlier this month criticizing the Democrat for asserting at the Democratic debate that she had not accepted campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry.
The video features footage from the January debate, in which McGinty touts her endorsements from both the steelworkers union and the League of Conservation Voters, before responding "no" to a moderator’s question about whether she has received support from the oil and gas industry.
In the background, Fetterman can be heard stating: "From oil and gas, really?"
The video then asserts that McGinty has received $198,600 from energy industry-related donors during both her gubernatorial and Senate primary bids.
McGinty’s campaign disputed those figures, along with data culled by America Rising, a Republican political action committee, arguing that she has received funds from individuals with varying energy interests and not from oil and gas industry-related PACs.
"It is absurd that Pat Toomey and his allies are making accusations about Katie’s support when Toomey has received $300,000 from the oil and gas industry and has a consistent record that is dangerous to the environment — such as voting to roll back clean water protections and voting against taking action on climate change," McGinty spokeswoman Sabrina Singh told Allentown’s Morning Call last week.
Both Toomey and McGinty have likewise tangled over McGinty’s employment history — a mix of public positions dating to her tenure as an aide to Al Gore when he was the Senate and private posts including her work for the environmental consulting company Weston Solutions, a former member of the Marcellus Shale Coalition.
"Pennsylvania’s abundant energy resources play a crucial role in our state economy. If handled correctly, Pennsylvania is in a great position to lead our country’s efforts to become energy independent," Toomey campaign spokesman Steve Kelly said in a statement. "While Democrats across the state run left on energy issues, Senator Toomey is proud to stand with the hard working men and women who work every day to help reach this goal."
But McGinty has touted her resume — which also includes posts on the board of wind and natural gas firm Iberdrola and NRG Energy — arguing that it shows her dedication to renewable energy development.
"It’s been my honor and my privilege to work throughout my career on global warming and climate change," McGinty said at last month’s debate. "When we take action on climate change, we enhance our national security, we protect public health, and we grow our economy."
McGinty has said that if elected, she would seek to expand investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency programs, including construction and transportation.
Sestak has pointed to his House tenure, including his support for the carbon cap-and-trade measure, and vowed to push similar legislation if he returns to Capitol Hill, along with production and investment tax credits for the renewable industry.
According to a recent survey by Harper Polling, the Democratic race remains closely contested, with Sestak leading McGinty by single digits.
The Jan. 22-23 poll of 680 likely primary voters gave Sestak 33 percent to McGinty’s 28 percent, followed by Fetterman with 11 percent. Another 28 percent of voters remained undecided. The survey had a 3.8-point margin of error (E&E Daily, Jan. 28).
Sestak likewise maintains an advantage in fundraising, with $2.6 million in the bank at the end of 2015, while McGinty reported nearly $1.2 million at that time. Fetterman, who has described his campaign as a grass-roots effort, had $132,000 in his campaign coffers at the end of December.