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Pennsylvania Voters Don't Think Fracking Is A Big Issue Despite Trump's Focus On It

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Pennsylvania is a swing state, and it's a major hub for drilling natural gas. President Trump has made that a key issue of his campaign there. But as Susan Phillips of member station WHYY reports, it's not clear how much that may help him.

SUSAN PHILLIPS, BYLINE: For the past 12 years, the technology of fracking for natural gas has transformed quiet farm and forest communities here. It's created good-paying jobs and an influx of cash for people who lease their land to gas drillers, something President Trump has brought up often, as on this trip to central Pennsylvania in late September.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You're a big fracker. You - it's a big business here, 900,000 jobs.

PHILLIPS: Quick fact-check here - that number is ridiculous. The state puts the figure at about 26,000 jobs in the oil and gas sector. That's less than one percent of all jobs in the state. Still, Trump has repeatedly accused his Democratic opponent Joe Biden of wanting to ban fracking.

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TRUMP: He wants to eradicate all of the things that you're doing, all of the things that are bringing in so much money for your state. It's a disgrace. Now he's trying to say, well, I didn't really mean that.

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JOE BIDEN: I am not banning fracking.

PHILLIPS: That's Biden at the end of August in Pittsburgh.

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BIDEN: Let me say that again. I am not banning fracking no matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me.

PHILLIPS: A president cannot ban fracking on private land. Only Congress can do that. What Biden says he wants to do is stop leasing any new oil and gas rights on federal land. But Pennsylvania has very little federal land. And despite the focus on fracking, it's hard to find a voter who thinks it's a big issue. Republican County Commissioner Erick Coolidge is a dairy farmer and has leased several hundred acres of his land to gas drillers.

ERICK COOLIDGE: So yeah, I'm in favor of this president for a lot of reasons.

PHILLIPS: Coolidge says if Biden wins, he hopes any efforts to tackle climate change will be balanced with strong support for the industry. But for now, he's not worried about what Biden might mean for fracking.

COOLIDGE: The activity this year still generates income and revenue from truck driving to benefits to the hotels, motels, restaurants.

PHILLIPS: Fracking is also not a top issue for many Democratic voters.

SHARI HERSH: OK, I'm voting for Biden for so many reasons, even though he was not my pick in the primary.

PHILLIPS: Shari Hersh lives in Philadelphia. She supports the Green New Deal and a fracking ban. But when asked why Biden...

HERSH: Because I feel like Trump is so utterly and completely destructive.

PHILLIPS: In fact, poll after poll shows the top issues for Pennsylvania voters are health care, coronavirus and the economy. So why has President Trump made all the fuss over fracking?

NEIL OXMAN: He's focused on it because he's making it a wedge issue among rural voters.

PHILLIPS: Neil Oxman is a Democratic political consultant. He says Trump needs to replicate what he did in the state's rural counties four years ago, when he used coal mining jobs as a wedge issue even though there were only about 5,000 people working as coal miners in the state.

OXMAN: Wedge issues are those things that people clearly are yes-no about. And I think that with fracking, you're either for it or against it. So that's why he uses it. He uses it as a way to define him and to define Biden.

PHILLIPS: Polls show a large split between the state's rural and urban voters when it comes to fracking. Political analysts like Oxman say what really matters in this race may be turnout. And for that, it makes sense to drive that wedge.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Phillips in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF FKJ SONG, "BETTER GIVE U UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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