Led by President Obama, most Democrats have tried to occupy a careful middle ground on the natural-gas industry that's transforming the U.S. energy economy. But that balance might not last much longer, as environmentally conscious "fracktivists" look for ways to press their case that the potential for pollution outweighs the jobs created by the mushrooming shale-gas drilling industry.
Natural gas doesn't receive full-throated Democratic backing like wind and solar power do, but it doesn't come under heavy fire like oil and coal, either. Obama, for instance, has called for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to be safe and carefully monitored, but has never pushed for federal restrictions on it.
Some environmental leaders and so-called fracktivists are hopeful the party will turn against the industry. And they have some reason for optimism. Already, Democratic governors and presidential prospects Andrew Cuomo and Martin O'Malley have upheld moratoriums on the controversial process in New York and Maryland, suggesting the issue could emerge as a potent one in a presidential primary. And this summer, the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee passed a resolution calling for all drilling to temporarily halt in the Keystone State. The resolution was nonbinding, but it was nonetheless significant in a state seen as ground zero for the country's natural-gas boom and where Democrats have been friendly to the industry.
However, any political shift within the Democratic Party won't come easily. And many party insiders and operatives think it won't come at all—because the booming industry offers too many economic benefits to too many groups, including members of the Democratic coalition. In addition, the environmental fallout, while a concern, doesn't stir as much worry as that from oil and coal.
A survey taken last fall by Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., and the University of Michigan, shows that most Democrats view the industry as a possible economic lifeline. Asked whether natural gas is important to the state's economy, 77 percent of Pennsylvania Democrats said it was somewhat or very important. Just 22 percent called it not very important or not important at all.
At first glance, Pennsylvania's Democratic gubernatorial primary next year looks like a prime opportunity for the party to swing left on natural gas. Fracking is a major issue in the state's politics. Primaries are driven by the party's base, which is friendly to environmental causes. And many of those voters live in or near Philadelphia, the one region of the state that hasn't benefited economically from the natural-gas boom. On top of all that, two of the candidates, John Hanger and Katie McGinty, are former heads of the Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Department.
But operatives connected to many of the campaigns predict the campaigns won't veer left on natural gas. The politics of opposing fracking are complicated, even within the Democratic Party, they say, because most Democrats believe it brings jobs that are worth the environmental risk. "The flip side to appeasing the environmental lobby is that you open yourself up to getting roasted on killing jobs in Pennsylvania," said one Democrat working one of the campaigns.
The front-runner in the race, Rep. Allyson Schwartz, has already publicly opposed the state party's moratorium resolution. Few expect other contenders for the nomination, including Hanger, McGinty, State Treasurer Rob McCord, or businessman Tom Wolf, to take a stand in sharp opposition to the industry. The Democratic contenders will talk a lot about being sure to regulate the industry and levying larger taxes on it, said Chris Borick, a professor and pollster at Muhlenberg, but they won't go further.
"They'll tepidly support fracking in the state, saying it can provide a lot of economic benefit to the state," he said. "They'll also tout its environmental advantages … in terms of it being better for climate change than other fossil fuels like coal."
Traditional members of the Democratic Party back the industry, not just in Pennsylvania but around the country. Among them are unions that stand to benefit from building the pipelines. And absent an environmental catastrophe connected to fracking, most mainstream Democratic voters haven't taken enough notice. Even Democratic leaders in deep blue, environmentally conscious states, like California Gov. Jerry Brown, have signaled they want to allow fracking.
"For the first time in my memory, you have a real live issue where environmentalists are lined up on one side, and pretty much the entire rest of the Democratic coalition is lined up the other side," said Matt McKenna, an energy lobbyist for MWR strategies.
The 2016 primary might offer a better chance for environmentalists to change the politics within the Democratic Party. Unlike Pennsylvania, voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other primary states don't benefit economically the same way those in Pennsylvania do. O'Malley and Cuomo—two of the presidential race's likely strong contenders should there be a primary fight—have already delayed allowing fracking in their states, so it's an issue that's already on the table.
"I'm not of the view that going into 2016, the entire Democratic coalition and base of the party is really 'We're happy with where we are on environmental issues.' I guarantee that's not the case," said Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic strategist with close ties to the party's environmental movement. He predicted that a Democratic candidate could push for an outright nationwide ban on fracking. "In the run-up to 2016, you may see candidates emerge pushing the party farther out there," Longabaugh said.
The Pennsylvania governor's race will offer a template for national candidates who want to move in that direction, but it will highlight the risks as well.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the governor of New York.