The question of moderator Lisa Sylvester, an anchor for Pittsburgh-based NBC affiliate WPXI, during tonight's Pennsylvania Senate debate relitigating Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s position on fracking was likely influenced by the campaign by right-wing media to falsely portray the Democratic nominee for senate as either supporting a ban on fracking or flip-flopping on the issue. In reality, Fetterman's past support for a moratorium on fracking is the same position that his opponent, Republican candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz, once had.
LISA SYLVESTER (MODERATOR): You have made conflicting statements regarding fracking. In a 2018 interview, you said, “I don't support fracking at all. I never have." But earlier this month, you told an interviewer, “I support fracking. I support the energy independence that we should have here in the United States." So Mr. Fetterman, please explain your changing position?
In the week leading up to the much-anticipated match-up between Fetterman and Oz, right-wing media outlets ramped up attacks — with origins in the right-wing media as far back as at least July — on Fetterman for his stance on fracking.
Fetterman has expressed support for the economic and job benefits of fracking but has been wary of the environmental threats and impacts posed by this drilling method. It’s not an uncommon line to walk for politicians in a state that financially benefits from, but also pays the environmental and health costs of, drilling. He has supported a temporary fracking moratorium but has not called for a ban, citing concern for workers.
Many of the recent attacks conflated a moratorium (a temporary prohibition) with an outright, permanent ban, and some claimed he’s flip-flopping, leaving out the nuance of his positions.
For example, The Washington Free Beacon falsely claimed that Fetterman reversed “his position on fracking just weeks ahead of his competitive Senate race.” The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway cited a CNN article (which also conflated a moratorium with a ban) while attacking Fetterman, stating, “Things are so bad for Fetterman right now that even CNN (!!) is dunking on him for flip-flopping on fracking.” The October 19 edition of Fox News’ Hannity — which aired as a town hall live from York, Pennsylvania, to boost Oz’s candidacy — featured a chyron saying “Fetterman flip-flops on fracking,” and host Sean Hannity called him “a lifelong opponent of the fossil fuel industry.”
Other attacks dealt superficially with Fetterman’s take on fracking as a whole, leaving out key pieces of information regarding the intricacies of his position, or flat-out lying.
For example, on October 19, Fox & Friends First hosted a Pennsylvania resident who falsely claimed that Fetterman would ban fracking if elected. On the October 17 edition of Fox & Friends, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) falsely claimed that Fetterman “wants to ban fracking.” The next day on The Faulkner Focus, Cotton repeated the same line of attack, stating that “John Fetterman and Joe Biden and the Democrats would ban the techniques that we have to get that gas out of the ground.”
On the October 15 edition of Fox News’ One Nation With Brian Kilmeade, Fox News contributor Kellyanne Conway suggested that Fetterman would ban fracking, stating that Fetterman is “anti-fracking,” and that “over 50,000 jobs in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania are related to fracking. It is an energy-rich state. You cannot have a United States senator who is against that and by extension against the employees.”
Taken together, these different lines of attack obfuscate Fetterman’s position on fracking – he doesn’t support a ban, which has been consistent since at least his first bid for the Senate in 2016. Both Fetterman and Oz have supported a temporary pause in drilling on public land — such as the moratorium reinstated by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2015 — to assess environmental and health impacts and regulatory avenues to mitigate those harms. Both candidates now support fracking on public land.
In an interview in 2018, which the moderator referenced in her question, Fetterman affirmed his position that he doesn’t personally support fracking but wants to keep wells open near where he lives because he is “pro-union.” Later in the interview he articulated his support for a moratorium, saying, “I don't think [fracking] has any place in people's backyards the way it is currently right now.” In a recent interview with NBC News, Fetterman suggested that his environmental concerns have been addressed: “The moratorium was until, and this was years ago, that they made the appropriate changes and regulations to make sure that they were — the waste water needed to be treated. … I’ve always supported it, as long as it’s done environmentally sound and making sure that we’re not contaminating our waterways.”
And while the moderator's question may have been a good faith attempt to clarify Fetterman’s position in the face of a campaign intent on muddying his stance, it is still a perverse example of how right-wing media have been allowed to shape debates of national significance.