Greens Fear a Fracking Obsession on the Campaign Trail

MIDDLETON, WI - NOVEMBER 19: A wind turbine rises up above farmland on the outskirts of the state capital on November 19, 2013 near Middleton, Wisconsin. A bill that would make it easier for residents living near power generating wind turbines to sue for any perceived negative impacts to their health and property values goes before the Wisconsin legislature on Wednesday. Critics believe the bill (SB167) could kill the wind energy business in Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images) (National Journal)

Pennsylvania's environmentalists want to talk about renewable energy. It's proving a lonely conversation.

As a crowded field of Democrats competes for the right to take on Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, the state's green movement is looking for some mention of how to restore the state's once-leading wind and solar energy sector.

What they're getting instead — when the candidates discuss energy — is wall-to-wall talk about natural gas. The fossil fuel is booming, thanks to the massive Marcellus shale gas formation and the fracking technologies used to develop it. And that's made it nearly impossible for renewables to get much traction over fossil fuels.

All four of the major Democratic primary candidates have broken with the state Democratic Party's position on fracking, which was codified in a resolution endorsing a "moratorium on the practice of hydraulic fracturing until such time as the practice can be done safely."

The candidates' websites contain nods to renewables, but on the stump, all four are touting a plan to turn the Marcellus shale into the state's ATM, adding a new fracking tax to fund education and infrastructure (see related story).

For environmentalists, it's especially painful because Pennsylvania was once a national leader in renewable energy: Under former Gov. Ed Rendell and then-environment secretary and current gubernatorial candidate Katie McGinty, an alternative-energy portfolio standard put the state ahead on wind and solar energy. The standard, passed in 2004, required utilities to supply 18 percent of its power from alternative sources by 2020.

But the state has since been passed by neighboring states like Ohio (12.5 percent by 2024), Michigan (10 percent by 2015), and Maryland (20 percent by 2022). On the ground, the state's turnaround was underscored in January, when a nine-year-old Gamesa wind-turbine factory east of Pittsburgh closed. The company said it was realigning its American strategy to focus on the Southwest.

Pennsylvania greens, however, have not abandoned hope that the energy conversation will move in their direction — especially once Democrats have picked their candidate for the general election.

"This is a state where energy issues are at the forefront. People overwhelmingly get renewables and people will support good policies, especially as we see the gas industry not producing all of the benefits they promised," said Kim Teplitzky, deputy press secretary for the Sierra Club's Pennsylvania chapter. "In terms of generating revenue, [renewables] will do more. There's a lot of room for this to be a bigger issue."

And in that general election, greens want Democrats to take the fight to Corbett over what they say is renewable neglect.

Indeed, Democrats are quick to accuse current Corbett of not doing enough to foster renewables, instead focusing on expanding the gas industry. The loss of manufacturing jobs1once the state's bread and butter with the coal industry — should make for an easy messaging hook.

The Sierra Club, however, will try to message around renewables when the general campaign rolls around, no matter which Democrat is on the ballot. Also expected to be an issue: the plan Corbett's administration wrote to help the state comply with Environmental Protection Agency's ozone standards, which Teplitzky dismissed as "woefully inadequate to say the least."

As the weather warms and ozone alerts become more prominent in the summer, the Sierra Club and others will hammer Corbett on the plan in the hopes of hurting his already-weak environmental cred.

PennEnvironment Director David Masur said that with a long list of complaints against Corbett, clean energy may not grab headlines, but it's sure to be in the mix.

"He's got lots of enemies on the environment," Masur said. "There's the farmland people, the fracking people, the parks people, the clean-energy people. And that's not even including health care, food stamps, education, and everything else. There's a whole lot of things where voters are going to say, 'We took it on the chin the past four years,' and clean energy is one of them."

So far, however, the line of attack hasn't made much of a dent on the campaign trail.

"I wouldn't sell out other energy sources and their importance," said Ray Zaborney, a Republican strategist not affiliated with the Corbett campaign. "But in the middle of a big campaign and in the news, Marcellus dominates."