Fracking has its big moment in Pennsylvania's Oz v Fetterman debate

·5 min read

Tuesday night's Pennsylvania Senate debate was one of the most highly-anticipated matchups of the year and covered topics ranging from abortion to inflation to the health of one of the candidates.

But one of the most memorable moments came around an issue with national implications for the energy sector: fracking.

Both candidates lined up in support of the controversial practice and, about 27 minutes in, Pennsylvania lieutenant governor John Fetterman was asked to answer for his history of conflicting statements on natural gas extraction.

Confronted with a 2018 interview with a liberal YouTuber where he said “I don’t support fracking at all, I never have” he responded by saying “I’ve always supported fracking.” He then repeatedly refused to reconcile the two conflicting statements and, when pressed, only said again and again “I do support fracking.”

Fetterman is in the middle of closely-watched race with Dr. Mehmet Oz, who was also questioned on his fracking position. The contest to be Pennsylvania's next senator could determine who controls the full Senate in 2023.

The fracking moment will undoubtedly elevate energy issues to the top tier in the race alongside other issues like crime for the final stretch of the campaign—and also continue to put a spotlight on Fetterman’s post-stroke auditory processing issues, which were evident throughout the debate.

The fracking exchange also comes at at a time when the public eye is on the national energy sector: natural gas prices and utility bills will clearly be a key economic issue this winter around the country.

“The likelihood of split government combined with a persisting energy security challenge means we'll see more overall pressure on politicians to support domestic energy production,” Philip Rossetti, a senior fellow focused on energy at the R Street Institute think tank, told Yahoo Finance on Wednesday.

By Wednesday morning, the Oz campaign had predictably seized on the moment saying online that Fetterman “STILL refused to give Pennsylvanians answers” on fracking. Interestingly, the Fetterman campaign is also trying to seize on energy issues highlighting a different moment from the debate Wednesday morning to say “Oz is a simp for Big Oil” in a reference to an internet slang term to describe someone who is excessively sympathetic towards another person or thing.

Implications for the nation energy debate

Also during Tuesday’s debate, Oz was confronted with his past statements on the fracking issue, notably a column he wrote in 2014 saying “everyone would be best served” by a policy of “No fracking until results of a state department of health study become available.”

Oz wrote multiple columns that were critical of fracking over the years but, since then, Oz has become a strong advocate of more fracking, saying Tuesday night that fracking is a “very old technology” that should be expanded. For his part, Oz is likely to face questions not on energy, but on a different moment from the debate - specifically when he said abortion should be left to "women, doctors, [and] local political leaders."

In a statement Wednesday night, the Fetterman campaign said he "has consistently supported fracking when there are strong environmental and public health protections in place" but the key for energy sector observers is that both candidates are now publicly supportive of fracking, the process of drilling to extract natural gas from below ground.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 13: Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz hosts a safer streets community discussion at Galdos Catering and Entertainment on October 13, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In the November general election, Oz faces Democratic Pennsylvania Senate nominee John Fetterman. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
Republican Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz during a campaign even in October in Philadelphia. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Fracking provides thousands of jobs in Pennsylvania but the process itself can be very damaging to the environment. Alongside Texas and North Dakota, Pennsylvania is one of the biggest states in the country for fracking. Rossetti says that in the coming years, “if the president tries to reign in that production, that could put him in tension with Pennsylvanians that are key electorally.”

“The challenge for politicians that may want to unequivocally oppose fossil fuels is that they still need to win in fossil fuel states to implement their agenda," he added of a political landscape that is likely to apply to both Democrats and Republicans in the years ahead.

Fetterman’s complicated position on the issue

CNN recently reviewed Fetterman’s past statements and found multiple comments in recent years that suggested a wholesale opposition to fracking. In 2016, he called fracking a “stain” on Pennsylvania and discussing the idea of banning it in the state.

“[I]f we did things right in this state, we wouldn’t have fracking,” he wrote at the time.

Pennsylvania's Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman speaks to supporters gathered in Dickinson Square Park in Philadelphia on October 23, 2022, as he campaigns for the US Senate. - The US midterm election is scheduled for November 8, 2022. (Photo by Kriston Jae Bethel / AFP) (Photo by KRISTON JAE BETHEL/AFP via Getty Images)
Pennsylvania's Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman in Philadelphia on October 23. (Kriston Jae Bethel/AFP via Getty Images)

Since then, he has sounded much more open to fracking. In a statement, Fetterman spokesperson Joe Calvello told Yahoo Finance that “John has not supported a fracking moratorium or ban since Pennsylvania instituted stronger environmental rules to protect public health." He added: "In fact, John was attacked in the Democratic primary over his support for fracking, and throughout his career John has stood up to politicians to fight for U.S. Steel's right to build fracking wells."

Fetterman has also expressed support for specific fracking projects (and the jobs it supports) such as one in his hometown of Braddock. He brought up that support Tuesday night during the debate, noting he lives closer than anyone in the race to fracking.

The Fetterman campaign didn’t respond to a request from Yahoo Finance for more context on his fracking position. In any case, Fetterman and his campaign are sure to face plenty of questions in the coming days trying to square his seemingly conflicting statements on the issue.

This post has been updated

Ben Werschkul is a Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.

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