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On the Ground

In Pennsylvania, fracking might not be the winning issue US presidential candidates think it is

Lois Bower-Bjornson, southwestern Pennsylvania field organiser with Clean Air Council, points out a fracking well site just over the hill from her home in Scenery Hill, Pennsylvania.
Lois Bower-Bjornson, southwestern Pennsylvania field organiser with Clean Air Council, points out a fracking well site just over the hill from her home in Scenery Hill, Pennsylvania. © Colin Kinniburgh
Text by: Colin KINNIBURGH
13 min

In the battle for the White House, Pennsylvania and fracking have become all but synonymous. Yet in one of the state’s largest gas-producing counties, FRANCE 24 found residents’ relationship with the industry to be far more vexed than the national debate suggests.

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Rose Friend’s family has a long history with natural gas. For decades, the family’s home in rural Washington County, Pennsylvania, got a free supply of the fuel from a local conventional well, as compensation for one of the several active gas lines running across the property.

It was a straightforward, convenient arrangement for the family, and a testament to the region’s longer-running relationship with fossil fuels. Alongside coal, which powered the area’s iconic steel mills, oil and natural gas production in southwestern Pennsylvania dates back to the late 19th century. For Friend, who grew up ploughing the land with horses, and whose nephew worked in the coal mines, the benefits of the area’s abundant energy reserves were obvious.

Then, around the mid-2000s, a new variable entered the equation. In Friend’s case, it was a company called Atlas America, which was looking to capitalise on a lucrative new industry: hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking. The technology allows drillers to extract oil and gas from deep inside underground rock formations by injecting them at high pressure with water and a cocktail of chemicals.

Atlas was an early player in what would soon prove to be a fossil fuel resurgence. In 2007, when Friend first signed a contract with the company, it was one of the many companies seeking to gain a stake in the Marcellus shale, the gas-rich formation on which her home sits.

Since 2014, fracking has allowed the United States to become the largest oil and gas producer in the world. Pennsylvania alone produced more natural gas in 2019 than any country besides Russia and Iran – some 195 billion cubic metres, according to figures published by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) and Enerdata.

The site opposite Friend’s home, however, lay untouched for a decade after Atlas first approached her. By that time, the company had been sold to Chevron and then again to EQT, now the largest gas producer in the country. And that’s when the trouble started.

“They just moved in,” said Friend, who is in her eighties. “It was totally crazy. I looked out my window one day and they were cutting all my hedges down!”

Rose Friend has spent has much the last two years battling with a natural gas company that she says built a road across her property without her agreement. Still, she says fracking is “necessary”, and plans to vote for Donald Trump.
Rose Friend has spent has much the last two years battling with a natural gas company that she says built a road across her property without her agreement. Still, she says fracking is “necessary”, and plans to vote for Donald Trump. © Colin Kinniburgh

Without warning, she says, the company started chopping down decades-old trees along her road, in order to clear access to a well pad on the neighbouring property. That began a more than two-year-long battle between Friend’s family and EQT, as the company sought to build an “impoundment” – a kind of storage pond for fracking wastewater – on her land, as well as the road.

The family says the company’s activity threatened not just their immediate environment, but also a Native American burial ground on the site, which had been registered with the state’s historic preservation commission since the 1980s and prompted multiple archaeological teams to intervene in their dispute with EQT.

Standing on the gravel road that EQT built across their land, overlooking the Hunter well pad, Karen LeBlanc is furious with the company and politicians alike over what she describes as their dishonesty. She plans to vote for Trump, but says, “Truly, it’s not to do with the fracking”.
Standing on the gravel road that EQT built across their land, overlooking the Hunter well pad, Karen LeBlanc is furious with the company and politicians alike over what she describes as their dishonesty. She plans to vote for Trump, but says, “Truly, it’s not to do with the fracking”. © Colin Kinniburgh

Ultimately, Friend and her daughter Karen LeBlanc were able to prevent the company from building the impoundment, but not the gravel road that now cuts across what they describe as the “best” of their farmland. The access road is essential for EQT, as the fracking process requires hundreds if not thousands of truck trips per well to bring materials in and out.

One day, LeBlanc says, one of those trucks blocked her mother’s car in when she needed to go to chemotherapy for her colon cancer. Another day, she says, a bulldozer ran over the active gas line that supplied free gas to the family’s home. The line cracked, cutting off Friend’s gas and leaking all night.

To this day, the family says, they haven’t reached an agreement with EQT or received any compensation for the damage to their property. LeBlanc’s anger at the company is palpable.

“It was important that they let [my mother] retire here with some kind of dignity, and putting this road here didn’t allow that,” she said.

EQT did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Fracking is necessary’

Still, Friend doesn’t harbor any ill will toward the industry as a whole.

“I think that fracking is necessary,” she said. “But done the correct way and regulated.”

Leblanc agrees.

“If they can find some way to stop contaminating the water, stop contaminating the air… that’s what they need to work for,” she said.

That’s essentially the position of local Democrats, several of whom FRANCE 24 interviewed just a few hours before meeting LeBlanc and Friend.

Yet both mother and daughter support Donald Trump, as a Trump-Pence yard sign outside Friend’s house makes clear. When asked why, she stressed the president’s signature campaign themes.

“I just don't like the way Biden’s headed... with Kamala Harris, and all the socialism,” Friend said.

“They want to take away your guns, and I have lots of guns,” she continued, with a laugh. “They’re very pro-abortion, and that is a big thing with me.”

A Trump-Pence yard sign outside Friend’s home. The house has been in her family for over 100 years.
A Trump-Pence yard sign outside Friend’s home. The house has been in her family for over 100 years. © Colin Kinniburgh

LeBlanc agreed, calling Trump the “lesser of two evils”. She said she’s not a single-party voter, and previously supported Pennsylvania’s Democratic Governor Tom Wolf. But her distrust of the political class pushed her towards Trump.

“Truly, it’s not to do with the fracking,” she said. Her mother agreed.

‘JOBS!’

In the increasingly fevered battle for the White House, Pennsylvania and fracking have become all but synonymous. The state went to Democratic presidential candidates from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, but flipped to Trump by 0.7 points in 2016 – a key step to his Electoral College victory.

The result there could prove just as decisive this year. And if there’s one thing Trump and Biden’s campaigns agree on, it’s that they can’t win the state without standing by natural gas.

“How does Biden lead in Pennsylvania Polls when he is against Fracking (JOBS!), 2nd Amendment and Religion? Fake Polls. I will win Pennsylvania!” he wrote on October 6.

Vice President Mike Pence also pressed the issue at last Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate with Kamala Harris, insisting that Biden would ban fracking if elected. Biden has made it clear he has no such plans – bucking pressure from environmental groups and the progressive wing of his party, who say that continued oil and gas drilling are incompatible with a livable climate. Yet the Republicans have succeeded in putting their opponents on the defensive, forcing Harris to repeat twice that Biden “will not end fracking”.

Bob Sabot, supervisor of North Franklin Township, a suburb of the county seat of Washington, says that fracking has become a “dangerous issue” for Democrats, “because Donald Trump has politicised it so much”.

Biden’s official climate plan does not mention fracking explicitly, but says that if elected, he would ban “new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters”. Sabot stands by this position.

“He wants to make sure it’s clear that in the future we are going to move in a different direction,” he said. “Cause … if we don’t start to deal with climate issues, we are going to continue to see wildfires and hurricanes, and oceans are going to continue to rise.”

Bob Sabot, supervisor of North Franklin Township, a suburb of the county seat of Washington, says that fracking has become a “dangerous issue” for Democrats.
Bob Sabot, supervisor of North Franklin Township, a suburb of the county seat of Washington, says that fracking has become a “dangerous issue” for Democrats. © Colin Kinniburgh

“Joe Biden wants to use fracking as a change of type of fuel to the future,” he continued. “Biden does not want to throw people out of work. He does not want to close the fracking industry and the coal mines.”

The actual number of jobs that fracking brings to the Pennsylvania are highly disputed. The Trump campaign says that shutting down the industry would “kill 609,000 jobs” in the state, citing a study from the country’s largest business lobby, the US Chamber of Commerce.

However, the national Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) counted less than 20,000 jobs directly linked to shale industry in Pennsylvania in 2019 – just 0.3 percent of all jobs in the state.

Industry proponents typically argue that such figures do not account for indirect or “induced” jobs supported by the industry, which are notoriously difficult to count. (The Chamber of Commerce provides no sources or methodology for its job estimates.)

What’s clearer from the employment numbers is the boom and bust nature of the industry, which shed some 10,000 direct jobs in just two years when oil and gas prices crashed in 2015-16. They haven’t recovered since.

Larry Maggi, a Democratic Commissioner for Washington County, is confident that the energy sector will bounce back.

“We are just in a down cycle since one or two years,” he said. “No matter who is president, we are going to come out of it.”

As for environmental concerns, Maggi maintains that fracking today is “done safely” in the state.

“We’ve been able to collaborate with the energy sector here without sacrificing our environment,” he said.

‘Lies and lies and lies’

LeBlanc, the Trump supporter, doesn’t share his assessment.

“They don’t need to preach how safe it is when you can see how many other lies I’ve caught them in,” she said of EQT. “We’ve seen video of the emissions coming from there. We’ve seen the water leaking out… It’s lies and lies and lies.”

Lois Bower-Bjornson has seen the videos too – a lot of them. A school classmate of LeBlanc’s, she is a dancer by trade and an anti-fracking activist by “necessity”. She now works as the southwestern Pennsylvania field organiser with Clean Air Council, serves on the board of the Washington County-based Center for Coalfield Justice and gives tours of local fracking sites to anybody who’s willing to listen.

She’s collected testimony from a wide swath of her neighbours who’ve been harmed by fracking, and brought their stories to state and national regulators. Besides Friend and LeBlanc, she’s worked with people like Janice and Kurt Blanock, who lost their son to a rare bone cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma in 2016, when he was just 19; his case and a string of other diagnoses of the same cancer in the area led the state to open an investigation into possible links to fracking.

Bjornson’s own children have experienced a range of symptoms that she attributes to the many gas wells within walking distance of her home in the town of Scenery Hill.

“My third son has the absolute worst health impacts, because he was the youngest and he grew up in it more, she said. “He will have severe nosebleeds, sometimes two a day, to the point that he has clots coming out of his nose and out of his mouth.”

Lois Bower-Bjornson says she has become an anti-fracking activist by “necessity”, after seeing the impacts on her own family and the surrounding community. Yet she believes it’s unrealistic to think that fracking could be banned in the area.
Lois Bower-Bjornson says she has become an anti-fracking activist by “necessity”, after seeing the impacts on her own family and the surrounding community. Yet she believes it’s unrealistic to think that fracking could be banned in the area. © Yona Heloua

Studies conducted in both Pennsylvania and Colorado have linked headaches, nosebleeds and respiratory symptoms to local pollution created by shale gas wells.

Bjornson is disgusted with the way the natural gas industry operates in her state, and at the ways that it has influenced politicians of both parties, including Biden himself. But she agrees with pro-gas Democrats on at least one thing: “They’re not banning fracking here. It’s not happening.”

She agrees that calling for a ban would doom Biden’s chances in the state, too. And she cautions liberals from states like New York, which have banned fracking, and want to “shame” Pennsylvania for not doing the same.

“You can sit up there on your little high horse, and say stupid stuff like that, but this is what we have to work with,” she said. “And that’s not our fault.”

Economics could trump politics

The sentiment may sound surprising coming from someone who has been wrangling with the industry for the better part of the past decade. Yet for Bjornson, it makes sense that the fracking fight doesn’t fall along straightforward partisan lines.

“People want to make this political when it’s not a political issue. It’s a human rights issue. It’s a, hey, species issue,” she said, referring to the threat of climate change. “Do you want to live? That’s what it is.”

Statewide, a CBS/YouGov poll conducted in August found that a slim majority (52 percent) “oppose the process of fracking”, with Black, Democratic and young voters most likely to oppose it.

Bjornson has seen that split even in predominantly rural, white, conservative Washington County, where she says the issue is “straight down the middle, completely divisive”.

Those divisions may only deepen if the industry’s current financial woes continue. Over the years, Bjornson says she’s encountered a few people who have profited handsomely from fracking, whether by finding a high-paying technical job or earning hefty royalties from drilling underneath their land. Others “made a lot of money, and now aren’t making any money because of the price of gas”.

Wall Street is flashing warning signs, too, as author Bethany McLean and others have explained. Oil giants Chevron and Shell are in the process of selling off their assets in the region. EQT disclosed a major writedown of its assets in January.

That was even before Covid-19 hit, contributing to an unprecedented oil price crash in April and casting further uncertainty over the market.

Ultimately, it’s these economic forces, not politicians, that may decide the future of fracking in the state. The question is: if Pennsylvania’s gas industry goes the way of coal and steel, will either party be able to offer a viable alternative?

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