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A resident of Dimock, Pennsylvania, displays a jug of what he identifies as his contaminated well water in this August 2013 file photo. (Photo: Matt Rourke/AP)

Sea Change in Gasland? PA Primary Shaping into Fracking Referendum

Progressive anti-fracking candidates fill the ballot in Pennsylvania, the second largest producer of fracked gas in the country

Nika Knight

Pennsylvania Democrats will have the opportunity to choose a host of anti-fracking candidates on the states' primary ballot on Tuesday—representing a potential sea change against the industry at the heart of the Marcellus Shale, one of the country's largest fracking plays.

The state is the second largest producer of natural gas in the country, after Texas. Pennsylvanians living close to wells and suffering the accompanying adverse effects on their health and land have long appealed to corporate officials and local politicians to put a stop to the controversial practice.

In Pennsylvania, three candidates on Tuesday's ballot, "including Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders and two Democratic U.S. Senate hopefuls, want to ban or pause the controversial oil and gas drilling technique, splitting an electorate in parts of the state concerned about both jobs and the environment," Reuters reports.

And fracking sharply divides the two Democratic front-runners for president: Sanders has called for a nationwide ban on the practice, while Hillary Clinton, who promoted fracking around the world during her tenure as the U.S. secretary of state, has pushed for "a middle-of-the road approach that would allow it with caveats," as Reuters puts it.

Clinton's campaign has also accepted money from fossil fuel and fracking interests, drawing sharp critique from environmentalists.

Three Democrats are vying for the chance to run against Pennsylvania's junior senator, Republican Pat Toomey, in November, and a majority of them are opposed to fracking.

One of the anti-fracking candidates, John Fetterman, is a small-town mayor whose candidacy The Nation described as "Bernie-inspired" as he runs on a platform based on combating inequality. When it comes to fracking, the Pittsburgh City Paper reported that Fetterman has called for sharper statewide regulations, a severance tax, and for a moratorium on the practice until those regulations are put into place.

"Why wouldn't Pennsylvania want to have the strictest and best environmental standards?" Fetterman asked in a recent interview.

Fetterman's fellow Senate candidate Joe Sestak, currently a congressman from Pennsylvania's 7th district and a former three-star U.S. Navy admiral, has supported an immediate moratorium on fracking since he first ran for Congress in 2010. He also believes a moratorium should be put in place until far better regulatory standards and a severance tax go into effect, reports the Pittsburgh City Paper. 

Children "should not see [drilling rigs] as they walk out of school," Sestak told the newspaper.

The third candidate, Katie McGinty, "the former head of the state's environmental regulator, has been endorsed by President Barack Obama and Governor Tom Wolf," as Reuters writes. McGinty doesn't go so far as to call for a moratorium on fracking, but has said she is for stricter environmental standards—although in the past she has also "called fracking the state's 'secret sauce' for job growth," as Environment & Energy Publishing reported.

All candidates support repealing the so-called "Halliburton loophole" that permits fracking corporations to keep secret the exact components of the toxic chemical mixture that they use to liquefy and extract natural gas from hard shale rock.

Local observers note that the anti-fracking candidates represent a significant shift, as in the past Pennsylvanians have largely supported the controversial industry.

Indeed, statewide support for fracking could be shrinking as news of the practice's detrimental effects, such as contaminated water supplies and fracking-induced earthquakes, has received increasing media attention. "Opposition to fracking [...] has risen to an all-time high nationwide of 51 percent, according to a Gallup poll released March 31, from 40 percent a year earlier," as Reuters reports.

Moreover, new polling data shows that Pennsylvania Dems may support Sanders—and, environmentalists hope, his fellow anti-fracking candidates—in significant numbers.

A new poll indicates that Clinton's lead in the state is shrinking: while a previous survey had Clinton ahead by as much as 27 points, a recent Public Policy Polling survey found Clinton leading by 10 points. This "represents a closer race than most public polls have shown over the last few weeks," the poll organizers note, and represents a far more competitive primary than that on the Republican side.

Since Pennsylvania will host the Democratic convention in July, environmentalists also hope that a strong showing for anti-fracking candidates in the formerly very pro-fracking state could push the party at large to adopt a more aggressive stance against the industry. Indeed, activists are planning to march at the convention to call on Democratic leaders to do so.

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