Democracy dies when Pa. pols tell their own voters to drop dead on fracking — The Philadelphia Inquirer (2/4/2024)
You’re hearing a lot in this election year about the threats to American democracy — especially from the GOP’s Donald Trump and his talk of a kind of dictatorship — but we don’t talk enough about the long-term, deeper rot of big money and benign neglect that hits home in a city like Chester, the working-class, mostly Black community on the Delaware River south of Philly.
In November 2022, Chester gave Sen. John Fetterman a healthy chunk of the votes he needed to defeat the GOP’s Mehmet Oz in a close race. The Democrat won more than eight of every 10 voters in the city, sweeping some polling places like Ward 2’s Precinct 3 with as much as 93% of the tally. Just over a year later, Chester is learning that love isn’t a two-way street.
The Delaware County community has been awash in controversy over a proposed $6.4 billion facility to create liquefied natural gas (LNG) — largely the product of fracking in Northern and Western Pennsylvania — and ship the liquefied gas overseas. The proposal played a role in 2023’s ouster of an incumbent mayor who supported the scheme, and activists celebrated last week’s unexpected announcement by President Joe Biden of a federal pause in issuing permits for new LNG export facilities like the one sought for Chester, to study their impact on climate change.
That’s why it felt like a stab in the back when Fetterman and Pennsylvania’s other Democratic senator, Bob Casey — who’s in a tight 2024 reelection battle — issued a statement last week that criticized their own party’s president and instead supported the natural gas industry and, in essence, the kind of monstrosity that Chester activists are fighting against.
“While the immediate impacts on Pennsylvania remain to be seen, we have concerns about the long-term impacts that this pause will have on the thousands of jobs in Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry,” the two Democrats said in their joint statement. “If this decision puts Pennsylvania energy jobs at risk, we will push the Biden Administration to reverse this decision.”
Zulene Mayfield, a longtime fighter for environmental justice as leader of Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living and a key foe of the proposed LNG export facility, told me on Saturday that the opposition from Fetterman and Casey shows why the community can’t let its guard down even after the positive news from the White House.
“We’re not going to be deceived by the pols or the promise of money,” Mayfield said, referring to a pledge of multimillion-dollar civic contributions from the would-be developer. “We believe these types of facilities and industries have been an economic hindrance for our community.” She said Chester’s waterfront — already home to a controversial incinerator that burns trash from Philadelphia and elsewhere ― could be an economic jewel instead of officials “being lazy and letting any waste-polluting, death-spilling industry into our community.”
A self-proclaimed savvy political observer might insist that it’s smart politics for Casey and Fetterman to claim a pro-jobs stance in an edge-of-the-Rust Belt state like Pennsylvania. The conventional wisdom is that voters here care more about getting new industry over protecting the environment and that it’s shrewd strategy for these Democrats to shield their right flank from attacks by “drill, baby, drill” Republicans, even if it alienates a few tree-huggers on the left.
But there are two massive holes in this conventional wisdom, big enough to drive a 100-car “bomb train” of fossil fuels right through them.
The Casey-Fetterman manifesto ignores the reality that a majority of Pennsylvania voters oppose fracking, since so many of us have seen now what pollution and health risks from poorly regulated drilling have done to our rural communities, or because we don’t want badly built pipelines or “bomb trains” passing through our towns, or because, unlike most American politicians, we think we should be doing something about climate change. A September 2021 poll by the Ohio Valley Institute found that 55% of Pennsylvanians want fracking to end now or be phased out.
The other hole in the conventional wisdom is that the jobs promise of Pennsylvania’s fracking boom and related gas-powered facilities have been continually overhyped, even as the very real dangers of pollution are ignored. A Food and Water Watch report noted that while 2020 was a record year for oil and gas production in Pennsylvania, jobs in the industry fell sharply that same year and accounted for less than 25,000 of the state’s five million workers. Another study last year found the counties with the most fracking actually lost overall jobs during the so-called boom years. The real numbers just don’t comport with the politicians’ rah-rah, pro-gas jobs boosterism.
Yet the price on Pennsylvania’s public health is excruciating. A major state-funded study released last year showed that children living near fracking sites had a higher risk for lymphoma, a type of cancer, and that gas drilling is also linked to a sharp rise in asthma as well as low-birth-weight babies. The administration of newish Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro, which insists that continued fracking can be made safer, essentially responded to these bombshell findings with a shrug emoji. Shapiro has yet to weigh in on Biden’s pause on new LNG export plants.
None of this even considers the biggest elephant in the room: climate change. The onslaught of natural disasters seems poised to continue this week. An “atmospheric river” — packed with extra moisture from an overheated Pacific Ocean — is expected to trigger catastrophic floods and mudslides as it bears down on California. The reality that humankind needs to rapidly phase out fossil fuels weighs on many voters — but doesn’t seem to register with our politicians.
Instead, both parties continue to slip on the oil slicks of industry fantasy. The latest Pennsylvania boondoggle is the massive, $6 billion Shell plastics plant in Beaver County, which won the largest tax subsidy in state history based on grossly overstated economic estimates and began violating its mandated pollution limits from the moment it opened in 2022.
But the LNG export racket is arguably worse. The reality at the core of New York-based Penn American Energy’s plan for a Delaware County plant is that Pennsylvanians would bear all the health risks of fracking and pipelines or rail shipments through our neighborhoods, capped by the pollution from a plant in Chester that would be a monument to environmental racism — all for a product that wouldn’t lower U.S. energy prices but would instead be shipped to Asia or other foreign markets, to enrich Wall Street investors.
Opposing U.S. LNG exports ought to be a no-brainer. Casey and Fetterman’s stance might sway some labor unions who see a brief boost in construction jobs for projects like the Shell facility, but who else? Yet, there’s also no alternative. For voters unhappy with Casey’s stance on fossil fuels, the other choice in November will be the manufactured GOP candidacy of Dave McCormick, a hedge-fund multimillionaire who’s spent most of the last decade in Connecticutand is trying to buy the Senate seat with $18 million from his rich friends like Florida billionaire Ken Griffin.
Who represents the silent majority of Pennsylvanians who have real concerns about climate change and who want fracking to disappear? The same could be asked about a cease-fire in Gaza, which is also backed by a majority of voters, especially young people, yet is ignored by the same politicians — extremely so by Fetterman, who waves Israeli flags at his constituents protesting the deaths of Palestinian women and children. When the choice is between Democrats who offer a kinder, gentler façade while telling a community like Chester to drop dead and a GOP that has openly embraced authoritarianism, is that really a healthy democracy?
Citizen leaders like Chester’s Mayfield have good reason to fear that the temporary good news of Biden’s election-year pause on new LNG export facilities will be overwhelmed by the cynical inertia epitomized by the Fetterman-Casey doctrine. The chickens that have been feeding at the trough of a decaying democracy — from environmental racism to the surge of billionaire money that invents a fake candidate like McCormick — are coming home to roost in 2024. The climate of alienation and distrust is ideal weather for the lethal cynicism of a strongman like Trump. An unneeded pollution machine dumping on the people of Chester might only be part of the coming stench.