In Pennsylvania’s Hotly Contested 17th Congressional District, Climate Change Takes a Backseat to Jobs and Economic Development

BEN AVON, Pa.—On a Saturday morning late last month, in this tree-lined suburb west of Pittsburgh, Chris Deluzio, a Democrat running for Congress, met with residents and supporters at the Anchor & Anvil coffee shop, a community-oriented business on a peaceful street. 

Several houses near the coffee shop had blue Deluzio signs posted on their lawns, though in a driveway around the corner, a man was assembling hundreds of campaign signs for Kathleen Coder, one of the Republicans running in the state’s May 17 primary in the closely-watched 17th Congressional District, with control of the U.S. House on the line this fall. 

After a brief stump speech, Deluzio answered a question about manufacturing and job creation. “I start with the basic premise that we need to be making more things here,” Deluzio said. He spoke about bad trade deals and federal investment in manufacturing and the importance of union jobs, which is a theme of his campaign.

A woman seated by the wall asked, “How do you feel about the climate crisis?” 

Deluzio contrasted his position with those of the Republicans running, who don’t acknowledge that there is a climate crisis. He said that there are two crises in America right now: one about climate and one about democracy. “We can’t fix one without fixing the other,” he said. 

Energy policy holds particular prominence in the 17th, where the old tug-of-war between industry and the environment is as potent as it ever was. Fracking for natural gas has become a significant economic driver throughout much of central and western Pennsylvania, and Shell is constructing a massive plastics plant in the district that will create hundreds of jobs turning ethane, a liquid natural gas byproduct, into 1.6 million tons of plastic pellets per year.

But in a congressional district that also includes the birthplace of the legendary environmentalist, Rachel Carson, the jobs and economic growth that come with the oil and gas industry are usually viewed as more important than the consequences of that investment, like climate change and pollution that is harmful to public health. 

The Shell plant 30 miles from her homestead is permitted to release 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere annually, an amount equal to that emitted by 474,000 automobiles, and fracking’s contribution to air and water pollution across the state is well documented. Pennsylvania is the second largest producer of natural gas after Texas and ranks fifth among the states for total greenhouse gas emissions. 

Although it has improved since the days when steel mills ruled the region, the air quality in the Pittsburgh metro area is among the worst in the country, and Allegheny County’s is particularly bad, earning an F in two of the American Lung Association’s State of the Air measurement categories and barely passing in the third.

To feed the plant with ethane, Shell built the Falcon pipeline, which covers 97 miles and crosses 22 townships. The plant will require gas from 1,000 active fracking wells, according to the Clean Air Council

Ben Avon is a quiet neighborhood of well-kept, wide-porched Victorians set on a hill that tilts down toward the Ohio River. There are blooming dogwood trees and robins calling to each other; it is a clear spring morning, and the sky is cornflower blue and patchworked with puffy clouds. As the morning went on at the Anchor & Anvil, the shop filled with chatter and the occasional whir of the blender behind the counter. 

Families dressed in athleisure-wear dropped in with strollers and babies in tow, meeting people or ordering a coffee to go. A flyer reading “We support clean energy jobs” hung on the bulletin board alongside a Deluzio poster. On the menu was the “Smokestack Mocha,” a signature espresso drink made with paprika salt and chipotle powder. 

Deluzio struck a pragmatic note when asked about the Shell plastics plant. “It’s there. It’s happening. It’s not going away,” he said.

He spoke about the necessity for industrial developments to meet environmental standards, and about the “false choice” between jobs and clean air. “I reject that,” he said. “We should have both of those things. We should fight for both of those things.”

Across the 17th congressional district, there are a few passionate voices calling for a reassessment of the area’s long-accepted trade-offs between economic growth and residents’ health and safety, people who believe that Deluzio is right when he says that the binary choice between jobs and clean air is a false one.

But it’s unclear if anyone who is not already directly affected by pollution or climate change is listening to those voices. Far fewer dare to imagine a future where renewable energy is prioritized at the expense of oil and gas.

The Democrats’ Balancing Act

Political wisdom holds that maintaining the balancing act between support for the fossil fuel industry and concern about the environment and pollution is the key to winning statewide elections in Pennsylvania. That may be changing in some places: recent polling shows that a majority of Pennsylvania voters support action on climate change and 55 percent support “an immediate or eventual end” to fracking. But the balancing act continues for Democrats in the 17th, a classically purple, suburban swing district. It encompasses Beaver County, to the west of Pittsburgh; a part of Butler County; and a portion of Allegheny County to the north, covering the suburbs and small towns that ring the city and stretch along the Ohio and Allegheny rivers.

Like the incumbent, Conor Lamb, who wrested the 17th district from a Republican in a 2018 special election and is now running for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat, Deluzio is a lawyer and a veteran. He looks the part of the professional, “conventional” politician, favoring a clean shave and neat suits or a polo and khakis. 

When he speaks, he weaves his experiences as a voting rights attorney, a father and an officer in the Navy together to tell a convincing story about why he believes in working for the “common good.”

At a recent forum for Democratic candidates held by the League of Women Voters, Deluzio and his opponent in the primary, Sean Meloy, called climate change an “existential crisis” and an “existential threat.” Meloy is an openly gay Democratic party organizer and member of the Pennslyvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs.

Deluzio spoke about extreme weather events and the need to be net carbon zero by 2050. “We have to find ways in this region to protect jobs, to look for opportunities to grow parts of our energy industry” that will help accomplish that goal, he said.

At the candidate forum, Meloy spoke passionately about the climate crisis. “This is going to affect every single person on this planet. We need to be acting with more urgency,” Meloy said, connecting increased flooding in the district to climate change. “People might not recognize that it’s from climate change, but guess what, it is.” He talked about the need for a “realistic plan” that would create jobs and “bring people together” to solve the climate problem. 

On Meloy’s campaign website, the section about “climate change and conservation” begins with a sentence about the “opportunity” to create more union jobs and drive economic growth while tackling climate change in a “green industrial revolution.” Deluzio’s platform doesn’t mention climate or the environment. Neither Deluzio nor Meloy named climate or the environment when asked to list the top three issues that concern voters in the 17th.

“In Pennsylvania, there are a number of environmental and energy-related issues where there is not a whole lot of difference between where most Democratic candidates and Republican candidates stand,” said Matt Nemeth, the chair of the Green Party of Allegheny County. “That’s very disappointing and it leads to voters not getting representation” in government.

He lamented the climate platitudes that progressive Democrats in southwestern Pennsylvania spout while they share few details about what they plan to do to actually change things. “They don’t release any specifics. They don’t talk about fracking,” he said. “They put this timeline of getting to net zero—not real zero—carbon emissions decades into the future, which is way too late.”

Republicans and Unbridled Energy Development

For the three Republicans running in the GOP primary for the 17th congressional seat, the presence of the fossil fuel industry is not something to be balanced with the urgency of climate change, but stimulated for economic development, lower gasoline prices, energy independence and national security. 

Kathleen Coder, a management consultant and former member of the Bellevue Borough Council who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2018, said during a recent debate in Aliquippa that she would be the “biggest cheerleader” for energy projects while favoring reduced Environmental Protection Agency regulations on facilities like the Shell plant. 

Jeremy Shaffer, a Ph.D. engineer who recently sold his software company, also called for reining in the EPA and said natural gas as a replacement for “dirty coal” would enable the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent. 

Jason Killmeyer, a former national security and counterterrorism expert at the Rand Corp. with extensive natural security consulting experience in the federal government, expressed similar enthusiasm for the Shell plant and disdain for excessive EPA regulation. 

In an earlier interview, Killmeyer said he thinks that environmentalists often have good intentions, but that their work could end up destroying the communities they aim to preserve. “I think environmentalists’ hearts are often in the right place,” he said. “They want to protect people, but what they don’t realize is if they keep getting their way there won’t be any people left to protect.” The population of Beaver County has been in decline since the 1980s. 

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Killmeyer likened the modern environmental movement to “a religion.”

“It reminds me somewhat of the people who were telling us the world was going to end in 2012,” he said.

With his national security background, Killmeyer was quick to link policy choices about energy and industry in Western Pennsylvania to foreign policy. He is a measured speaker, but an earnest one. In March, he posted a video to his Twitter account entitled “Energy independence. Demand it.” The clip shows the candidate standing by the river with the Shell plant silhouetted by the sunrise behind him. “I think it looks kind of beautiful in the morning,” he said. “You know what else it looks like to me: it looks like national security. It looks like not begging Middle Eastern dictators for oil. It looks like not depending on Vladimir Putin to heat our homes. It looks like not cowering to China.” 

The war in Ukraine and the surging gas prices that came with it have brought renewed calls from Republicans in Pennsylvania to make use of the state’s resources to lessen our dependence on foreign fossil fuels, alleviate the cost of gas in the U.S. and promote economic growth. “We are learning, in painful fashion, in an era where we have the first ground war in Europe in 70 years,” Killmeyer said, “that energy independence is national security.”

The Shell plastics plant, he said, “was a potential turning point for our region, and what we need is five more. What’s next month’s announcement? What’s the announcement after that? How can we continue to attract that kind of investment?” 

Asked what he would say to residents who are nervous about the pollution the plant will produce, he said: “I think that we should embrace appropriate technologies to make sure that we have carbon capture as a broader policy and that we have appropriate safety mechanisms in place so that those communities can feel safe.”

“We’re either going to have jobs, or we’re not,” he said. “We’re either going to have growth, or we’re not. The choice before us as a region, as it relates to energy and environmentalism, is much more binary.”

Huffing and Puffing’

At the Anchor & Anvil in Ben Avon, Thaddeus Popovich seemed to know everyone. Retired from a career in sales and marketing, he’s easy to spot in a neon yellow windbreaker and a Ukraine flag pin, chatting with the coffee shop owner at the counter. He ran into a friend who was attending the Deluzio campaign event, and then introduced himself to Deluzio, too.

Popovich has experienced the pollution in this area for much of his life. “I can remember when I was a kid, going into Pittsburgh, and the streetlights would still be on in the middle of the day,” he said, “because the steel mills were huffing and puffing.” 

When he returned to this area as an adult, eventually living here in Ben Avon, he became an environmentalist when he realized how much harm air pollution could cause—and how much harm it had caused him, exacerbating his heart issues so much that he felt he had to move to a different town north of here. Popovich helped to found Allegheny County Clean Air Now, an organization dedicated to monitoring the Shenango coke plant across the water from Ben Avon. Its first meetings were held in this coffee shop.

Asked how he planned to decide which candidate to vote for in the primary, he said he looks for a willingness to engage with the community in person. “Are they willing to talk with us, even though they may have a different opinion?” he said. He liked that Deluzio was there shaking hands and talking with people. At the candidate meet and greet, before Deluzio spoke to the group, Popovich asked him about climate change. He liked Deluzio’s response about the need to protect our air and water, but he had a follow-up question that had the ring of challenge: “Will you say it out loud on your campaign?”

Kiley Bense is a writer and journalist whose work has previously been published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Believer, and elsewhere. 

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