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Pa. politicians often calibrate their views on fracking based on voters' opinions

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A single election could decide control of the U.S. Senate. It is the election of a senator in Pennsylvania.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The campaign there has turned on personalities - the candidate who had a stroke against the TV host who lived out of state. But the candidates have also had to address a big issue, one that touches on far more than the Senate. It involves climate change, the environment and the economy.

INSKEEP: It's the debate over fracking, a drilling technique used to bring up oil and gas. Both candidates criticized fracking, yet both say they support it. Their contradictory statements reflect the electorate. Here's Reid Frazier of The Allegheny Front.

REID FRAZIER: As a columnist, Dr. Mehmet Oz once called for a pause on fracking pending the results of a public health study. But in this week's debate, he gushed about the gas industry's economic potential.

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MEHMET OZ: Fracking has been demonstrated - it's a very old technology - to be safe. It is a lifeline for this commonwealth to be able to build wealth.

FRAZIER: And before new state rules were put in place in 2016, John Fetterman wanted a moratorium on fracking. But at Tuesday's debate...

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JOHN FETTERMAN: I've always supported fracking. And I always believed that independence with our energy is critical. And we can't be held, you know, ransom to somebody like Russia.

FRAZIER: The hard-to-pin-down views of both Fetterman and Oz on fracking reflect voters' own views on the issue, says Chris Borick, director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College. He says most Pennsylvania voters don't want to ban fracking.

CHRIS BORICK: On the other hand, Pennsylvanians have been really fairly consistent in wanting fracking to be monitored, regulated, taxed in ways that the state often has not.

FRAZIER: Borick says fracking is often discussed during campaigns, but it's never a top issue for the electorate like the economy or abortion are this year. Berwood Yost, a pollster at Franklin & Marshall College, says the issue is more tricky for Democrats like Fetterman. Many of their voters worry about fracking's potential for pollution. But he says Fetterman is also trying to win back voters the Democratic Party has been losing for years.

BERWOOD YOST: There are sizable numbers of particularly white working-class voters who feel strongly that fracking is - that kind of energy development is good for the economy.

FRAZIER: Don Furko is one of the voters Fetterman is trying to court. He's head of a local steelworkers union at a U.S. steel plant near Pittsburgh. Many workers at his plant - at least the vocal ones - are voting for Oz over issues like guns and abortion. But he is voting for Fetterman because he sees him as on the side of workers like those at his mill.

DON FURKO: I think his - if he had to straddle the fence that his - you know, the foot that he's stepping with is going to be the one that's with jobs.

FRAZIER: Outside a shopping plaza in the Pittsburgh suburb of West Mifflin, Carol Martin and her husband John, both 82, say they support fracking.

CAROL MARTIN: Creates a lot of jobs and keeps people working.

JOHN MARTIN: And keeps the price of everything down.

FRAZIER: While John says he's voting for Oz, Carol's undecided. Her top issues are the economy and the war in Ukraine. Fetterman's changing views on fracking don't bother her much.

C MARTIN: He's for it now. That's fine. If he was against it, then, well, he changed his mind. A lot of them change their mind on a lot of things.

FRAZIER: A few stores over, Andrea Webb of Pittsburgh says she's against fracking because of the potential environmental impacts.

ANDREA WEBB: Like my god-granddaughter tells me, save the planet, Nana, save the planet. OK. And fracking is very harmful, especially to people's water supply, underground water.

FRAZIER: Even though Fetterman supports fracking, she'll still vote for him because she likes his stance on other issues, like the economy. She thinks the government should be doing more to help people with low incomes.

For NPR News, I'm Reid Frazier in Pittsburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Reid Frazier | Allegheny Front