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Democrats Must Assess How To Campaign In Oil And Gas States

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Climate change has become a key issue in the presidential primaries, but it's a tricky one for Democrats in big oil and gas states like Pennsylvania, a swing state where the fracking boom has been a major boost to the economy. Reid Frazier of the Allegheny Front and StateImpact Pennsylvania reports.

REID FRAZIER, BYLINE: Standing on the side of a road, Jeff Nobers looks across the Ohio River at a massive construction site. Shell is building this multibillion-dollar petrochemical plant that will turn natural gas into plastic. Nobers heads the Western Pennsylvania Builders Guild, which includes many union members working on the plant.

JEFF NOBERS: You know, work here is a lot of overtime, so you have, easily, people making well over six figures.

FRAZIER: Nobers says if Democrats nominate someone who wants to move away from fossil fuels, they'd have a tough time winning over some of these workers. He says the union leaders he works with wouldn't necessarily tell their rank-and-file members who to vote for.

NOBERS: But they would be very clear to say, look. If you vote for this person, this is what they stand for. And, you know, at the end of it, you know, this is your livelihood and the livelihoods of many others.

FRAZIER: Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have both said they support a ban on fracking for natural gas or oil. Legal experts doubt a president could do this without congressional approval. But political observers are starting to wonder whether this stance could hurt a candidate with swing voters in Pennsylvania, where 30,000 people work in the oil and gas industry.

CHRIS BORICK: I think the answer's probably yes.

FRAZIER: Chris Borick of Muhlenberg College says lots of people in the state are concerned about climate change in the environment, but...

BORICK: I think the proven method and the method that is shown to be successful time and time again is to win moderate Democrats, moderate voters.

FRAZIER: But that group might include some who are just fine with an antifracking candidate. Recent polls find Pennsylvania voters are split on whether to ban fracking. One found support for a ban was strongest in the state's two biggest cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) We won't rest until you divest. We won't rest until you divest.

FRAZIER: At a recent rally at the University of Pittsburgh, students call on the school to divest from fossil fuels. Brianna Mims, who's from outside Philadelphia, watches between classes.

BRIANNA MIMS: I am someone that really values the environment, and I feel like anything that we can do to stop the way that we're torturing the environment is beneficial.

FRAZIER: Then there are voters like Gerald Medved. A retired coal miner, Medved is a registered Democrat who voted for Trump in 2016, a decision he now regrets. He says his groundwater was temporarily polluted when a gas company drilled a well near his house along the West Virginia border.

GERALD MEDVED: When you ask me what I feel about the gas company, I feel some good and a lot of bad.

FRAZIER: He's OK with an anti-fracking candidate. He says he's seen the climate changing with his own eyes.

MEVE: I think you have to look at the scientists in the United States. The people are saying there's global warming. And figure, do you want to do something about it now or wait until it's too late?

FRAZIER: For this election, Medved says he's willing to give the Democratic candidate, whoever they may be, his vote.

For NPR News, I'm Reid Frazier in Pittsburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Reid Frazier

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