John Fetterman’s Evolution on Climate Change, Fracking and the Environment
The ad opens in Braddock, Pennsylvania with the kind of eerie industrial imagery that has long been synonymous with the decline of America’s Rust Belt: empty storefronts, abandoned buildings, For Sale signs, cracked asphalt. Other than the slow, dramatic piano music laid over the footage, the only sound is the muted whir of an occasional passing car. There are no pedestrians in sight; everything appears to be shut down, faded and awash in shades of gray.
John Fetterman, then the mayor of Braddock, appears in the corner of the frame 20 seconds in. “With a smart, economically-viable carbon cap policy in place, communities like Braddock, that suffered so badly during the collapse of the steel mills, can begin to build its manufacturing and middle class back up,” he says. “This whole notion that we can continue to operate as we have been and ignore climate change is ludicrous.”
This 2009 ad was part of a campaign called Carbon Caps = Hard Hats, promoting a cap on carbon pollution as a way to spur investment in clean energy industries and create new, green jobs, especially in struggling towns like Braddock, which has lost more than 90 percent of its population since its peak of 20,000 in the 1920s.
Sponsored by the Environmental Defense Action Fund, the Blue Green Alliance and United Steelworkers, the Carbon Caps = Hard Hats campaign’s stark, striking ads feature the faces of laid-off steelworkers, Braddock’s vacant streets, and Fetterman, who serves as a spokesperson. In one photograph, Fetterman poses, hands on hips and wearing work boots, in the cavernous Carrie Furnace Works, a steel mill near Braddock that closed in 1982. A large quote is emblazoned in yellow block letters across the picture: “A cap on carbon pollution will create jobs and prosperity for workers in America, starting in Braddock, PA.”
After the carbon caps ad campaign launched, Fetterman traveled to Washington, D.C. to speak at Congressional hearings on the topic of carbon caps and a new energy bill, the American Clean Energy and Security Act. The bill passed the House and was never brought for a vote in the Senate, but it provided Fetterman with national exposure, both in the hearings, where he stood out in a sea of buttoned-up legislators, and on talk shows, where he took questions from viewers and talked about the importance of creating “green” manufacturing jobs.
Fetterman, now Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, no longer talks about a carbon cap in his current campaign for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat. His campaign website calls climate change an “existential threat” and says that “we need to transition to clean energy as quickly as possible, and we can create millions of good union jobs in the process,” but he has dropped his support for a fracking moratorium he espoused during his 2016 Senate run, saying recently that “right now our energy security is paramount.” His campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
A look back at the Carbon Caps = Hard Hats campaign in Braddock and Fetterman’s previous work on climate and the environment charts a clear shift to the center as he tries to walk a precarious line, familiar to Pennsylvania Democrats across the state, torn between appealing to environmentally minded voters, unions and economic interests in the nation’s second largest natural gas-producing state, behind only Texas.
One of the central themes of Fetterman’s 2022 campaign for Pennsylvania’s Senate seat centers on his unorthodox appearance–the same tattoos, short-sleeved shirts, and goatee he sported in the carbon caps ads in 2009–and what that willingness to flout sartorial conventions signals about his politics. “I don’t look like a typical politician. And I sure don’t act like one,” reads one recent campaign mailer. “I’m 6 foot 8. I shave my head…And I prefer black work shirts and cargo shorts to suits and ties.”
Fetterman presents himself as a pragmatic leader who doesn’t have time or patience for the niceties of political theater. When he talks about policy, he is self-deprecating and charismatic, a straight-shooter who seems unafraid of blunt honesty or its political consequences. “I’ll always be straight with you about my common-sense views,” his campaign says. “But I’ll never tell you the easy thing just to get your support.” But on environmental and climate issues, his record has not been as consistent or straightforward as voters might expect from a candidate whose website claims that he “hasn’t had to ‘evolve’ on the issues.”
Fetterman’s involvement in the carbon caps campaign was just one facet of his early work on sustainability and “green” initiatives after he became the mayor of Braddock in 2006 at the age of 35. In 2009, he secured a $100,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments to build a “green” roof in Braddock and another $190,000 grant in 2014 for a “food-based ecosystem project” including an urban farm and restaurant. He helped found the farm in partnership with Grow Pittsburgh, which includes a greenhouse and farm stand and sells fresh produce in town.
In 2007, Fetterman persuaded a biodiesel company to set up shop in Braddock in a 9,000-square-foot converted warehouse facility. “They’re focused on bringing a great business to Braddock,” Fetterman said of the company in 2007. “There was a lot of interest in biofuels and other alternatives in the early 2000s,” said Asa Watten, who was the CEO of Fossil Free Fuel in Braddock from 2010 to 2013 and is now an environmental economist. “Electric vehicles felt like a long way off and were not ready, and it seemed like there needed to be a solution for reducing the climate impact of autos and internal combustion engines now.” Watten recalled driving an old truck around to restaurants to pick up grease to make into biodiesel. The company had big ambitions to expand their operations and processing capacity. Watten remembered Fetterman’s involvement with the carbon caps initiative. “That also was a fairly new concept at the time,” he said. Van Jones’ bestselling book The Green Collar Economy had just come out in 2008, and Fetterman’s campaign was part of a new push to portray climate action as an engine of economic growth instead of a costly trade-off.
In the years after Fetterman was elected mayor for the first time by just one vote, he was profiled in the New York Times, Harvard Magazine (he is an alumnus of the Kennedy School), Orion, Rolling Stone and Grist, appearing in articles with titles like “Wrought from Ruins” and “The Mayor of Hell.” These largely laudatory pieces praised his vision for and dedication to transforming Braddock–and spotlit the environmental advocacy and “green” ideas that had allegedly helped him do it. Similar language reappears: Fetterman talks about Braddock’s “malignant beauty” and the allure of its abandoned landscape to the intrepid “urban pioneer.” The other constants are the “filth” and industrial pollution (in the Rolling Stone piece, a Braddock resident says, “It smells like sulfur. The water tastes different. You see three-eyed fish and shit.”) and Fetterman’s stubborn optimism about what Braddock might become, if only the town could realize its fullest potential, with Fetterman’s nonprofit and his chosen projects leading the way. Many of those projects, highlighted in these stories as an innovative approach to remaking a “wasteland,” were environmentally-focused: the farm, the biodiesel company, the “green” roof. A 2011 book, Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change, includes Fetterman’s achievements in Braddock in its pages. Fetterman, it says, “set about revitalizing the city–by going green.”
In 2010, the Ecological Society of America gave Fetterman its Regional Policy Award. “Mayor Fetterman has demonstrated that he is a leader in green development in the state of Pennsylvania and the region,” Mary Power, the president of the ESA, said of Fetterman’s work in Braddock. The ESA cited Fetterman’s emphasis on sustainability and “environmentally-friendly building design,” as well as his advocacy for alternative energy sources. “It is my hope that if anything can be learned from our efforts in Braddock,” Fetterman said in his acceptance speech, “it would be that environmental justice is social justice.”
When you ask Braddock residents about Fetterman’s environmental work now, they don’t remember those early, hopeful forays into green jobs, architecture and business. “The only thing I remember him talking about was bringing in artists and yuppies and things of that nature at the time,” said Isaac Bunn, a lifelong resident who runs a nonprofit called the Braddock Inclusion Project. Bunn remembered Fetterman’s focus as mayor being more on projects like the restaurant that Fetterman helped to open in town, Superior Motors, and Brew Gentlemen, a microbrewery. “As far as the green jobs, I’ve never actually heard him talk about that.” Bunn’s mother was the runner-up candidate for mayor in the 2005 election. Chardaé Jones, who succeeded Fetterman as mayor of Braddock in 2019, wasn’t aware of Fetterman’s green initiatives either. “To my knowledge, that actually never happened,” she said. I asked her about the carbon caps and green jobs campaign from 2009. “Those are cool keywords,” she said. “It would be nice if it was to happen. But if it’s not implemented, it doesn’t mean much.”
What is more likely to come up in a discussion of Fetterman’s environmental record is what some residents view as his capitulation to U.S. Steel on the issue of fracking. “I had supported a lot of the things that Fetterman was doing at first,” Jones said. “But I drew the line when he was for fracking.” In Braddock, Fetterman’s shifting views on fracking do not feel abstract or distant as they might in other parts of the state. In 2017, Merrion Oil & Gas was preparing to drill six new fracking wells on the site of the U.S. Steel Edgar Thomson plant, Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill, which is located in Braddock on the Monongahela River. For local activists organizing against the wells, Fetterman was seen by many as an obstacle, not an ally.
Named for a president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Edgar Thomson plant opened in 1875 and has loomed over Braddock’s politics and its residents’ lives ever since, even as employment at the plant shrunk from thousands of workers to a few hundred. Braddock’s contemporary woes are not only the result of the loss of manufacturing jobs. Most of the workers at the plant today do not live in Braddock, a trend toward suburbanization that began decades ago. “Nobody wants to live here anymore,” says one of the characters in Thomas Bell’s 1941 Braddock-based novel, Out of this Furnace, near the end of the story. “People have automobiles and the farther away they can get from the mills the better. Who can blame them? I don’t.” As white residents moved away and job opportunities dwindled, redlining and poverty kept many of Braddock’s Black residents in place, changing the demographics of the town and leading to further white flight.
LaToya Ruby Frazier, an acclaimed photographer who grew up in Braddock, opened her book The Notion of Family with a large, glossy picture of Edgar Thomson, white smoke drifting upward from its stacks, suggesting the plant’s centrality to life in the town. The book is about how Frazier, “her mother, and her grandmother survived environmental racism in historic steel mill town Braddock, Pennsylvania.” In Edgar Thomson’s shadow, the houses, cars and telephone poles of Braddock look like toys.
“I think a lot of the things that happened to my family members were linked either to working in the mill or from the pollutants in the air that have been there for decades,” Bunn said. Bunn’s family home is a block away from the plant. Two of his sisters passed away from cancer, one at just 13 years old, the other at 34. His father, who worked in the steel mill, died of lung cancer after his retirement. “Majority Black communities have always been a dumping ground for polluters,” Bunn said.
Tony Buba is a Braddock native who has chronicled the town’s past and present in his documentary films since the 1970s. He said that his mother, brother and cousins all suffered from cancer, with his brother eventually dying from a rare form of lung cancer. “I have this short film I made of my grandmother out on the streets, sweeping up the mill dust. You’d have this glitter every night, sparkling when it hit the ground,” he said. “Some days you couldn’t even put your laundry out because the dirt was so thick coming from the mill.” The pollution that comes from the mill now is less visible than it was back then, Buba said. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. On bad air days, he notices himself coughing a lot, bringing up phlegm.
Penn Environment has named the plant the eighth-most toxic air polluter in Allegheny County for its emissions, noting violations of the Clean Air Act for sulfur dioxide pollution, and a list of other compounds that can cause cancer as well as harm respiratory, reproductive, developmental and cardiovascular health. In May, the Edgar Thomson plant was fined $1.5 million for air pollution violations and required to make facility improvements as a result of a settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Allegheny County Health Department. In Braddock and Allegheny County, elevated rates of infant mortality and childhood asthma have been linked to air pollution. Allegheny County has higher rates of death due to heart disease and chronic lower respiratory disease than the rest of Pennsylvania.
Fetterman’s current campaign talks about the different environmental standards in places like Braddock. “Environmental justice for every American is critical,” he says, in a video called “Climate Justice.” The video touts his opposition to the Mon-Fayette Expressway, a highway that was once slated to cut through the heart of Braddock. Dozens of homes and businesses would have been demolished to make space for the road. “I called it ‘environmentally racist policy,’” Fetterman says in the dimly lit clip, “and I was the only elected official in Western Pennsylvania to oppose this.”
Fetterman may have been right about the discrimination inherent in the Mon-Fayette proposal, but he wasn’t alone in opposing it. A 2001 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article quotes Braddock council member Evelyn Benzo speaking out against the Expressway plan. And support for the project was not just coming from outside the town; some locals whose houses were in the way of the construction were in favor. ”I’m going to open my front door and tell them, come on through,” one resident told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the same article. “There ain’t nothing down here on Third Street.”
During his unsuccessful Senate campaign in 2016, Fetterman had supported a fracking moratorium “at least until the state has an extraction tax and enacts the best health and safety standards in the country.” The following year, back in Braddock, he said that bringing fracking to the Edgar Thomson plant wouldn’t worsen the pollution in the area. “They need to do this to remain competitive and keep the plant open. Given what goes on there on a daily basis, no one would even notice,” he said at the time. “It would be like somebody baking a loaf of bread in a pizza shop.” Fetterman had once called U.S. Steel “just a polluter and historical ballast” with a “limited role” in Braddock, and now he was backing the plant’s plans to increase that pollution, with potentially dangerous consequences for public health.
Edith Abeyta, who is an artist and a member of North Braddock Residents for Our Future, an organization that successfully fought the fracking proposal, said that some in the group were surprised by Fetterman’s pro-fracking stance because Fetterman, his wife Gisele and their three kids are breathing in the plant’s pollution, too, and they would have been subject to any further pollution caused by the fracking wells. Fetterman and his family live in a renovated car dealership across the street from the plant, and though he is from another part of Pennsylvania originally, Fetterman has lived in Braddock for almost 20 years. He has recently been open about health problems he’s had since at least 2017, including cardiomyopathy and atrial defibrillation, issues he says caused the stroke he had this spring. “I don’t know,” Abeyta said, “maybe he really believes it’s safe where he lives.”
As Mythic as the Joe Magarac Statue
John Fetterman brought a bright national spotlight to Braddock and its environmental problems, which he continues to do in his current campaign. “One thing that can be said for John is that he brought a lot of attention to Braddock as a place worth saving,” Watten said. Although there was sometimes criticism about how it was spent and the lack of community collaboration in making those decisions, the money Fetterman brought into the town, from nonprofit grants or corporations like Levi’s or his own family, at least provided a counterweight to U.S. Steel’s extensive funding of neighborhood events and building renovations. The “green” initiatives, like carbon caps, that he once championed do not seemed to have worked out in the long-term for the most part, but there is something about those big ideas–and the earnest forcefulness with which Fetterman appeared to believe in them–that feels like a relic of an earlier political era, when a bipartisan, governmental solution to climate change still seemed possible.
There are limits to what any one person can do to “save” a town like Braddock, especially in the role of mayor, a position that comes with little power because of the structure of the municipal government. The same cycles of purposeful neglect and outright discrimination have persisted there for generations, and the systems of inequality that created and perpetuate Braddock’s environmental and economic troubles today are deeply entrenched. In the novel Out of This Furnace, even as the once-idealistic steelworker Mike becomes “angry and bewildered” at the fact that his attempts to fight back against the steel company in Braddock have gotten nowhere, he still “clings to his belief that the mass of men were in their hearts good…striving for all their blunders toward worthy goals and failing most often when they put their trust in leaders rather than themselves.” In 2022, it seems like grassroots, community-driven efforts like North Braddock Residents for Our Future are more likely to enact lasting change than a lone, pioneering politician.
“He’s real. I see him in the neighborhood. But he seems as mythic as the Joe Magarac statue,” Abeyta said when I asked what she thought about Fetterman’s reputation. She was comparing Fetterman’s public image to the giant sculpture that sits outside the Edgar Thomson plant depicting a steel industry folk legend who stood seven feet tall, did the work of dozens of men, and bent steel with his bare hands. Magarac is a cyborg superhuman with a spine that is literally made of steel. His story ends with the hero’s ultimate sacrifice, melting himself down so that his body can be used to build a new steel mill. The Magarac statue wears the same orange pants that the steelworkers wear now.
“There is this mythology that he is this working-class hero, and it’s not to say he doesn’t deserve it or doesn’t believe it,” Abeyta said. “But I would say if there’s a spectrum of Democrats, you have John Fetterman on one side of the spectrum and Summer Lee on the other.” Summer Lee is a Democratic member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives who was the first Black woman elected to the State House from western Pennsylvania. She recently won the Democratic primary in the 12th Congressional district, and she is a vocal opponent of fracking whose campaign emphasizes her background as a community organizer and her roots in Swissvale and North Braddock. She was part of the fight over the fracking wells at Edgar Thomson, something she highlights in her biography.
Though the fracking battle at the Edgar Thomson plant was won by the environmentalists in 2021, disagreement about pollution from the steel mill continues. On June 29, a public hearing was held in Braddock about Edgar Thomson’s Title V operating permit, a process governed by the Clean Air Act. The mood seemed subdued, but tense; between speakers, there was muffled quiet, punctuated with dry coughing. People sat on folding chairs wearing face masks in front of the representatives from the Allegheny County Health Department. This hearing was part of a 30-day public comment period, which is then followed by a review by the EPA. Permits are issued for five years.
Before the hearing, a small group of people concerned about air pollution led a rally on the concrete steps of Braddock Plaza, holding colorful signs with slogans like “I want to go outside!” and “Cancel USX.” Tony Buba spoke about his family’s cancer and growing up in Braddock with the pollution. He said he had had a hacking cough all morning.
At the hearing, U.S. Steel representatives said that they disagreed with the new emissions limits and said the Health Department was not working “collaboratively” with the company. Michael Evanovich, Union president, said that his and other workers’ experience working at the mill and living in the Mon Valley was proof that the plant wasn’t as dangerous as the activists said. “They’re in the heart and soul of those mills,” he said of workers. “If it’s that bad I don’t believe they would keep their jobs.” The current mayor of Braddock, Delia Lennon-Winstead, delivered an emphatic endorsement for U.S. Steel. “U.S. Steel is Braddock, and Braddock is U.S. Steel,” she said. She was joined by a parade of other community leaders and U.S. Steel employees, some of them in orange work pants from the plant, who spoke about U.S. Steel’s financial contributions to civic projects ($500,000 for a new roof for the Braddock library, which was originally built by Andrew Carnegie, for example) and said the draft permit was too restrictive.
In a statement, U.S. Steel said that “the environmental performance efforts of our dedicated employees at the Edgar Thomson Plant continue to yield significant, measurable results. Efforts become reality when regulatory agencies work collaboratively with industry.” The statement criticizes the Allegheny County Health Department for not discussing the permit with the company until four days before releasing the permit for public comment, even though the application was submitted in October 2020. “We respectfully disagree with ACHD’s creation of approximately 100 new emission limits that were not previously included in the existing Title V Operating Permit,” it reads.
Abeyta also spoke at the hearing. “Who is listening to us?” she asked the room and the silent government officials who sat facing her. “Who is going to act to stop the harm so our stories can change? So that we can testify about prosperity and smoke-free skies? Who besides us is going to stand up and fight for justice?” She talked about the need to change the prevailing narrative that residents needed to submit to pollution in order for steelworkers to keep their jobs. At the three-minute time limit, she was cut off mid-sentence.
“I thought maybe John might show up,” Tony Buba said later, when I spoke to him after the U.S. Steel hearing was over. He said he’d seen Fetterman out walking in Braddock the day before. But, he said, when he looked for him, John Fetterman wasn’t there.
Kiley Bense is a writer and journalist whose work has previously been published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Believer, and elsewhere.