Greens Fear a Fracking Obsession on the Campaign Trail

MIDDLETON, WI - NOVEMBER 19: A wind turbine rises up above farmland on the outskirts of the state capital on November 19, 2013 near Middleton, Wisconsin. A bill that would make it easier for residents living near power generating wind turbines to sue for any perceived negative impacts to their health and property values goes before the Wisconsin legislature on Wednesday. Critics believe the bill (SB167) could kill the wind energy business in Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
National Journal
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
April 14, 2014, 3:22 p.m.

Pennsylvania’s en­vir­on­ment­al­ists want to talk about re­new­able en­ergy. It’s prov­ing a lonely con­ver­sa­tion.

As a crowded field of Demo­crats com­petes for the right to take on Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Tom Corbett, the state’s green move­ment is look­ing for some men­tion of how to re­store the state’s once-lead­ing wind and sol­ar en­ergy sec­tor.

What they’re get­ting in­stead — when the can­did­ates dis­cuss en­ergy — is wall-to-wall talk about nat­ur­al gas. The fossil fuel is boom­ing, thanks to the massive Mar­cel­lus shale gas form­a­tion and the frack­ing tech­no­lo­gies used to de­vel­op it. And that’s made it nearly im­possible for re­new­ables to get much trac­tion over fossil fuels.

All four of the ma­jor Demo­crat­ic primary can­did­ates have broken with the state Demo­crat­ic Party’s po­s­i­tion on frack­ing, which was co­di­fied in a res­ol­u­tion en­dors­ing a “morator­i­um on the prac­tice of hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing un­til such time as the prac­tice can be done safely.”

The can­did­ates’ web­sites con­tain nods to re­new­ables, but on the stump, all four are tout­ing a plan to turn the Mar­cel­lus shale in­to the state’s ATM, adding a new frack­ing tax to fund edu­ca­tion and in­fra­struc­ture (see re­lated story).

For en­vir­on­ment­al­ists, it’s es­pe­cially pain­ful be­cause Pennsylvania was once a na­tion­al lead­er in re­new­able en­ergy: Un­der former Gov. Ed Rendell and then-en­vir­on­ment sec­ret­ary and cur­rent gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate Katie Mc­Ginty, an al­tern­at­ive-en­ergy port­fo­lio stand­ard put the state ahead on wind and sol­ar en­ergy. The stand­ard, passed in 2004, re­quired util­it­ies to sup­ply 18 per­cent of its power from al­tern­at­ive sources by 2020.

But the state has since been passed by neigh­bor­ing states like Ohio (12.5 per­cent by 2024), Michigan (10 per­cent by 2015), and Mary­land (20 per­cent by 2022). On the ground, the state’s turn­around was un­der­scored in Janu­ary, when a nine-year-old Gamesa wind-tur­bine fact­ory east of Pitt­s­burgh closed. The com­pany said it was re­align­ing its Amer­ic­an strategy to fo­cus on the South­w­est.

Pennsylvania greens, however, have not aban­doned hope that the en­ergy con­ver­sa­tion will move in their dir­ec­tion — es­pe­cially once Demo­crats have picked their can­did­ate for the gen­er­al elec­tion.

“This is a state where en­ergy is­sues are at the fore­front. People over­whelm­ingly get re­new­ables and people will sup­port good policies, es­pe­cially as we see the gas in­dustry not pro­du­cing all of the be­ne­fits they prom­ised,” said Kim Teplitzky, deputy press sec­ret­ary for the Si­erra Club’s Pennsylvania chapter. “In terms of gen­er­at­ing rev­en­ue, [re­new­ables] will do more. There’s a lot of room for this to be a big­ger is­sue.”

And in that gen­er­al elec­tion, greens want Demo­crats to take the fight to Corbett over what they say is re­new­able neg­lect.

In­deed, Demo­crats are quick to ac­cuse cur­rent Corbett of not do­ing enough to foster re­new­ables, in­stead fo­cus­ing on ex­pand­ing the gas in­dustry. The loss of man­u­fac­tur­ing job­s1once the state’s bread and but­ter with the coal in­dustry — should make for an easy mes­saging hook.

The Si­erra Club, however, will try to mes­sage around re­new­ables when the gen­er­al cam­paign rolls around, no mat­ter which Demo­crat is on the bal­lot. Also ex­pec­ted to be an is­sue: the plan Corbett’s ad­min­is­tra­tion wrote to help the state com­ply with En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency’s ozone stand­ards, which Teplitzky dis­missed as “woe­fully in­ad­equate to say the least.”

As the weath­er warms and ozone alerts be­come more prom­in­ent in the sum­mer, the Si­erra Club and oth­ers will ham­mer Corbett on the plan in the hopes of hurt­ing his already-weak en­vir­on­ment­al cred.

PennEn­vir­on­ment Dir­ect­or Dav­id Mas­ur said that with a long list of com­plaints against Corbett, clean en­ergy may not grab head­lines, but it’s sure to be in the mix.

“He’s got lots of en­emies on the en­vir­on­ment,” Mas­ur said. “There’s the farm­land people, the frack­ing people, the parks people, the clean-en­ergy people. And that’s not even in­clud­ing health care, food stamps, edu­ca­tion, and everything else. There’s a whole lot of things where voters are go­ing to say, ‘We took it on the chin the past four years,’ and clean en­ergy is one of them.”

So far, however, the line of at­tack hasn’t made much of a dent on the cam­paign trail.

“I wouldn’t sell out oth­er en­ergy sources and their im­port­ance,” said Ray Za­borney, a Re­pub­lic­an strategist not af­fil­i­ated with the Corbett cam­paign. “But in the middle of a big cam­paign and in the news, Mar­cel­lus dom­in­ates.”

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