In early August, Ginny Kerslake’s lush green yard in a middle-class Pennsylvania suburb turned into a muddy river, thanks to another spill at the pipeline drilling site opposite her house. A couple of days later, 10,000 gallons of drilling mud, or bentonite clay, contaminated a popular recreational lake that also provides drinking water for residents of Chester county.
The spills are down to construction of the Mariner East (ME) pipelines – a beleaguered multibillion-dollar project to transport highly volatile liquids extracted by fracking gas shale fields in western Pennsylvania to an export facility in Delaware county in the east, ready to ship to Europe to manufacture plastics.
In Pennsylvania, four years after Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 44,292 votes to win the state, the controversial pipeline project has helped make fracking a political flashpoint in the debate over energy, the climate crisis, environmental inequalities and the influence of big business.
Fracking was a hot topic in this week’s vice-presidential debate, and the Republican party has blanketed the state with ads falsely claiming a Biden administration would ban the practice. Kerslake was unimpressed by the debate, but like many local anti-fracking voters she is hopeful that a Democratic administration might, at least, be persuadable on the issue.
“The direct impact in our township has opened our eyes to how elected officials and government agencies we expect to protect us but don’t … Without fracking, there are no pipelines and vice versa,” said Kerslake, speaking in front of the noisy, unsightly drilling site, which can operate from 7am to 7pm six days a week.
The ME horizontal directional drilling (HDD) project – which is subject to multiple criminal and regulatory investigations – has caused major disruption to dozens of suburban and rural communities, contaminated surface and groundwater sources in hundreds of mud spills, and created countless sinkholes in parks, roads and yards since construction began in early 2017.
At least 105,000 people live within a half-mile blast radius of the ME pipeline system, which carries highly flammable, odourless and colourless gases in liquified form; many more Pennsylvanians attend schools, libraries and workplaces in close proximity.
Pennsylvanians suffer the country’s second-worst air quality, thanks to greenhouse-gas-emitting industries, and according to one recent poll, 83% of voters in the state think climate change is a serious problem and 58% look unfavourably at lawmakers who oppose strong action to combat it.
Despite dwindling public support for fracking, the state’s governor, Democrat Tom Wolf, recently signed a bipartisan bill approving $670m in tax breaks for the natural gas industry, which environmentalists condemned as irreconcilable with greenhouse gas emission targets.
“The push to make Pennsylvania a petrochemical hub is mostly about producing single-use plastics, not cheap energy to heat our homes, and expanding fracking will tie us for years to climate change gases. This is not what most Pennsylvanians want, but there’s a gap in understanding,” said Kerslake, who was defeated in this year’s primary for state representative after conservative non-profit groups linked to the natural gas industry funded half a million dollars’ worth of attack ads against anti-pipeline candidates.
Chester county, a semi-rural middle-class area with about 525,000 inhabitants, mostly white but with growing Latino and Asian populations, is a swing county: in 2012, Obama narrowly lost to Mitt Romney, but four years later it was the only county Hillary Clinton flipped in Pennsylvania, winning by almost nine points.
It wasn’t enough: Clinton failed to hold on to the state won twice by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama after hemorrhaging voters in rural and suburban districts. Until 2016, Pennsylvania had voted for the Democrat in six straight presidential elections, but the party’s decline was a long time in the making.
“Pennsylvania has been bleeding out Democratic voters for decades. It’s insane to think the Democrats can win here in the long term without winning over the massive working-class base by appealing to moderate Republicans … not being Trump isn’t enough,” said Jonathan Smucker, co-founder of the grassroots movements Lancaster Stands Up and PA Stands Up.