The Weekly Planet: The Secret Political Power of Fossil Fuels

Coal and fracking don’t work like other declining industries, and that matters for Democrats.

A smoking fracking project sits behind a suburban subdivision and beneath a gray, smoggy sky.
A Shell fracking project, known as "the cracker," was under construction in Monaca, Pennsylvania, in December 2019. (Maddie McGarvey / The New York Times / Redux)

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A decade ago, the American coal industry began to die. From 2011 to 2016, more than 39,000 jobs eroded away. At a scientific conference last year, I met a group of researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich who were curious about how this had affected American politics and, most pointedly, Donald Trump’s razor-thin victory in Rust Belt states.

In a new working paper, they find that the backlash to lost coal jobs added tens of thousands of votes to Trump’s ledger in 2016. Their analysis bodes ill for Democrats—and it matters now, as former Vice President Joe Biden tries to retake Pennsylvania after Trump’s victory there four years ago.

The team began by looking at more than 300 rural counties across the country—half with coal mines or power plants, half without. From 1992 to 2008, you could not distinguish the coal counties from the non-coal counties by comparing how they voted.

Then cheap renewables and natural gas started flooding the power market, and coal jobs began to vanish. Suddenly, the Republican vote skyrocketed in the counties with coal plants—specifically those that lost jobs.

In 2016, Republicans performed 4.9 percentage points better in the coal-decline counties than in the rural counties. More than 200,000 Trump votes are attributable to this effect, the researchers say.

It wasn’t just coal workers in these communities who voted GOP to save coal: “The ballot effect was larger than the job loss,” Florian Egli, one of the authors, told me. For every 100 coal jobs lost in the affected counties, about 600 more people voted Republican, and the GOP’s vote share increased by about 1.2 percentage points.

Red counties saw a coal-related Republican surge, while gray counties did not. (Egli, et al.)

Curiously, this effect seems really specific to the coal industry. When the researchers looked at counties with other declining industries, such as steelmaking, they found no rightward lurch.

So does this effect explain the 2016 result in Pennsylvania? Egli said it’s hard to know, because the team identified a national, not a statewide, statistical effect. But he estimated that 5,000 to 18,000 Trump votes in Pennsylvania were driven by this effect in 2016—at the upper bound, about half of Trump’s 44,000-vote margin there. The team’s work has not yet been peer-reviewed, but it matches what other researchers have seen in the state.

Coal, in other words, has a special power: It creates communities, even ones that outlast its death. Barely anyone in the U.K. works in coal mining anymore, but if you look at a map of coalfields in England and Wales next to a map of results from the 2015 general election (which Conservatives won), you’ll see that coal towns still vote Labour. In Germany, coal-aligned soccer clubs honored the closing of the last coal mine with a mournful pregame ceremony. And in the United States, where coal is dying but not yet dead, those communities tried to protect themselves at the ballot box.

Coal seems to have a special ability to do this, perhaps because it shapes towns over decades, or because of its history of strong unions, or because—as the historian Timothy Mitchell has argued—it requires men to go down into the earth and wrest the fuel out of the rock face with their hands.

The question in this election is: Does fracking have the same special power?

Biden and Trump both seem to believe that fracking will decide the election, even though the practice isn’t very popular with most voters. A recent poll provided exclusively to The Weekly Planet—and conducted by researchers at Yale, George Mason University, and the nonpartisan group Climate Nexus—found that about 42 percent of American voters support fracking, 41 percent oppose it, and the rest aren’t sure. The researchers found similar figures in another poll in Pennsylvania.

But fracking doesn’t need to command majority support to drive politics: It only has to motivate marginal voters. And, unfortunately for its opponents, it seems to.

Look at the 12 counties in Pennsylvania with more than 100 fracking wells. In these counties, Trump’s margin over Hillary Clinton was about 90,000 votes wider than Mitt Romney’s margin over Barack Obama.

A chart showing that Republicans did best in 2016 in the 12 most fracking intensive counties

That same election, Clinton performed better than Obama had in the state’s most liberal counties by only about 40,000 votes. The pro-Trump vote in fracking counties overwhelmed the anti-Trump vote in liberal cities.

In these counties, fracking “has become a cultural issue, similar to the way guns are,” Josh Freed, who leads the climate and energy program at the center-left think tank Third Way, told me. Freed and a small team of researchers have conducted focus groups in the fracking counties.

“And the people who are directly involved with fracking … they are really one-issue voters. It is part of their identity,” he said. “People who feel a personal connection with fracking are more likely to live in competitive House districts or statewide races, and it amplifies the power of their votes.”

The theory suggests that the Democratic Party has a difficult line to walk. The Americans who care most about strong climate policy either already vote for Democrats or live in solidly liberal states—but the Americans who are most resistant to climate policy live in the exact places that Democrats need to win.

Fracking isn’t like coal in every respect. Because fracking wells dry up so fast, workers are more peripatetic, and local communities see fracking’s arrival more as a short-lived boom than as a long-term source of stability. The pandemic has also scrambled politics across the state.

Nor does the existence of pro-fracking voters mean that Democrats should be pro-fracking once they get into government. In some ways, the existence of fracking voters suggests that Democrats should protect workers from the cruelties of the market, which is increasingly hostile to fracking. Democrats could perhaps do this by nationalizing oil and gas companies, then slowly retiring them.

But the situation does suggest that Democrats, while running for office, should be careful what they say or propose about specific fossil fuels. For now, at least, the gap between the average voter and the marginal voter is dangerously wide.

Look at This


Please watch the first 60 seconds of the new Hummer EV ad, okay? (Yes, that is LeBron James doing the opening voice-over.)

Now, to a lot of people—including, perhaps, some readers of this newsletter—a Hummer EV may seem like the last thing we need. But that instinct, I think, misses the context. Right before General Motors unveiled the Hummer EV last week, it announced a $2 billion investment in the renovation of a Tennessee factory for EV production.

Switching over a factory’s tools is expensive. (It costs $2 billion.) Without federal support, it’s the kind of thing that’s much easier to do if you sell cars, such as massive $112,000 trucks, that have a profit margin in the tens of thousands of dollars.

But it’s also a permanent change: This will be GM’s third EV-specific factory, and none of them will ever switch back to making gasoline-powered cars. The electric Hummer signals that the all-electric future is unstoppable.

The Hummer is an olive branch—an enormous, chrome-plated olive branch—to suburban America. Nearly 70 percent of all new cars sold in the U.S. are pickups, crossovers, or SUVs; GM is attempting to de-escalate the culture wars over electric cars before they begin—to turn EVs into a top-tier consumer product, like an iPhone Pro or PlayStation 5. The people buying a new Hummer will choose it not over a Nissan Leaf, but over a Range Rover Discovery or Cadillac Escalade. And in that choice, wouldn’t you prefer that they buy the Hummer?

So sit back and enjoy the ad. Seriously, this is what the fight against climate change looks like when it goes mainstream. I mean, the truck appears on-screen at the screamy part of “Immigrant Song”! The tagline is “No limits, no emissions, and no equals”!!! It sold out its preorder in 10 minutes!!!!!! We are going to defeat climate change!!!!!!!!!!

Vital Statistics

+80 percent: the favorability rating of solar energy, according to a poll of 2,047 registered voters nationwide, conducted by Yale, George Mason University, and Climate Nexus, a nonpartisan advocacy group.

+72 percent: the favorability rating of wind energy, according to the same poll.

+61 percent: the favorability of natural gas.

+13 percent: the favorability of oil.

-10 percent: the favorability rating of coal.

Caitlin Morelli

Caitlin Morelli shares a photo of peak-autumn foliage in Denver, New York, “in the heart of the Catskill Mountains.” Every week, I’m hoping to feature a weather photo from a reader or professional in this part of the newsletter, because the climate is someone else’s weather. If you would like to submit one, please email

Three Sweltering Things

  1. 2020 is likely to be the hottest on record, an astonishing data point, given that there is no El Niño pattern in the Pacific Ocean to elevate temperatures. The five hottest years on record are the past five; for now, the hottest year ever measured remains 2016.

  2. Scientists at Ford and General Motors knew that pollution from cars caused climate change as early as the 1960s, but failed to act on that knowledge for decades, according to a new investigation from E&E News. Exxon knew for decades too. So did the coal companies. And the country’s biggest freight railroads. Yet those industries funded lavish campaigns to deceive the public and muddy our understanding of climate change. At some point, we are going to have to rewrite the history of the late 20th century to make sense of that scandal.

  3. Some reasonably good news: The new prime minister of Japan, Yoshihide Suga, announced yesterday that the country will go net-zero by 2050. The European Union, New Zealand, and Japan have all now committed to remove at least as much carbon as they release into the atmosphere by that year. Biden’s climate proposal has the same target date. Last month, China committed to going net-zero by 2060.

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