Pennsylvania’s Lt. Gov. John Fetterman shot to viral fame this fall as a (often hilarious) voice of reason during former President Donald Trump’s lie-filled campaign to undermine election results in the state. Now, he’s gearing up for new challenge: running for U.S. Senate to replace retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey in what’s likely to be one of the most contentious midterm battles next year.
Fetterman’s commitment to labor rights and consistent progressive record has made him a left-wing champion. Last week, his campaign announced that Fetterman would sign the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, vowing to not take any money from fossil fuel interests or PACs during his campaign. (One of his opponents has also signed.) If elected, Fetterman would be the first U.S. senator to take the pledge before winning an election (or among the first if challengers in other races do as well).
Beyond this pledge, on paper, Fetterman’s climate views can seem like a contradiction: He has said he agrees with some of the Green New Deal, but he won’t ban fracking. For Fetterman, it’s impossible to separate the climate from jobs—and it’s important to acknowledge “two things can be true at the same time” when it comes to a just transition.
His viewpoints reflect a reality in states like Pennsylvania where fossil fuels are currently an integral part of the economy. Winding down fossil fuel production and use, especially with workers in mind, will be much more complicated than simply signing a pledge to avoid oil and gas money and making blanket promises. But the status quo is also increasingly untenable. The need to decarbonize is growing ever more pressing due to the worsening climate crisis, and the cost of delay could reach into the trillions.
Toomey has taken more than $1 million from the oil and gas industry over the course of his career. After his retirement, having a sitting senator without any ties to the industry, especially one who stakes his career on the wellbeing of workers, could mean that Pennsylvania could start to do the hard work needed to create alternatives to relying on oil and gas.
Earther got on the phone with Fetterman to talk about corporate money, why he still supports fracking (for now), and what he sees as the first steps we should take away from fossil fuels.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Molly Taft, Earther: I’m checking the records and it looks like there’s actually only 10 sitting U.S. senators who signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge. All of them were already in office when they signed it, and most of them are from pretty solidly blue states, like New York, without a strong fossil fuel industry presence. Running for Senate, it’s really expensive, and you’re from a state with a heck of a lot of fracking money floating around, and you’re facing some potential opponents who have made no bones about maybe taking that money. What do you stand to gain and what do you stand to lose from this pledge? Are you worried about how it might impact how you’re going to run your campaign?
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman: Thank you for noticing and saying that. I’m not trying to blow smoke, but no one has ever phrased that like that. It’s the minority of U.S. senators that take this pledge or care about this pledge. And it’s always in slam dunk states like New York where [fracking] is banned, for example. Like, oh, good. You signed the pledge in New York—that’s a profile in courage.
I want to point out that as long as this pledge has existed, I’ve signed it. I didn’t take any money in my first race, signed it in my second race in 2018 because that’s the first time that it existed. This was never up for debate in this one because I would never want anyone to believe that any view or vote that I have is because I’ve been given money.
I conduct my campaign with the utmost integrity and belief in the supremacy of the small dollar donor. If some of my other opponents take fossil fuel money, that’s up to them, but it’s just how I’ve always conducted myself.
Taft: So it sounds like this pledge for you is less about the industry itself and more about just like making sure your campaign is funded by small donors.
Fetterman: It’s both. There may very well be a position I take that may or may not be compatible with some members of my party, but it’s always going to be because what I fundamentally believe to be true. We’re not taking any big PAC money or anything. I just want people to understand that my views, my votes come from what you elected me for, not from who’s given me what to represent a specific viewpoint, for sure.
Taft: Everyone was talking about Pennsylvania back in the fall with regards to energy and the presidential debate. There was a lot of panic from the Democratic party about how energy issues could cost Biden the election. Was there anything missing in that larger conversation or something that you noticed that you might want to take to your campaign moving forward with how we treat this issue?
Fetterman: That’s certainly a concern in Pennsylvania, this idea that there are energy sector jobs and industries that are affiliated with that. But also, the pandemic hit. Fracking receded into the background dramatically given the year that we had. It would have been a very close race but for the pandemic. But even with the pandemic and Trump’s disastrous handling of it and all these other things, Biden still won Pennsylvania by only 80,000 votes.
There needs to be a reasoned, rational approach, but also with the explicit agreement and knowledge that we must transition towards green, renewable energy. And we must do it quickly and ethically and in an environmentally sound way. The existing workers and industry, those communities need to be respected and they need to be assisted in that transition.
It can’t be, you know, “go learn coding” or, “hey, good luck, put in an application at Home Depot.” This is something that requires a thoughtful transition. This is putting me at odds with some members of my party. I did not support an immediate national fracking ban on day one because I also would ask, if you stop producing natural gas on day one, where does the 40% of our nation’s electricity that natural gas generates come from? I’m just trying to have an honest conversation about how two things can be true at the same time.
Taft: Yeah, you’re coming from a state with a pretty strong grassroots support of Trump, and that includes his energy policies. Do you see any climate policies that you can get folks under your tent or are some people just a lost cause? It’s a pretty crazy culture war out there. When you say “wind turbines” and people just stop thinking, is there any way to bring people together?
Fetterman: I just think it’s having that measured approach. People try to imagine a future without gas heating their home or cooking their food. Texas illustrates what happens when you get that mix wrong, when you get that infrastructure wrong.
Republicans are consistently right-to-work and they want to eliminate unions or destroy the union way of life. I’ve said to workers that I don’t care what you agree with me on politically—I hope it’s as many things as possible—but one thing that you and I absolutely agree on is that your right to organize, your right to a good wage, your right to benefits, your right to participate in the value that your hard work creates. And that’s never going to change. If there’s ever a boot that comes down to the union way of life or some other kind of arrangement or some kind of corporate interests, I’m always going to come down on the side of the unions.
Taft: One of the things Democrats have struggled with is the “jobs versus environment” narrative that the Republicans have owned. What are some actionable things you would want to do when you’re in office to make sure that we move past that sticking point in the conversation?
Fetterman: First thing I would want to do is work on things that we should all agree on, and that would be infrastructure. Look at the Texas electrical grid. It is a standalone grid. Texas is its own grid because they don’t like federal oversight, and look at how’s that working out for them. We’re in a position where we have to upgrade our grids, whether it’s California, whether it’s Texas. Can’t we just agree to invest a lot of resources and to make those necessary upgrades and generate the jobs from that first and foremost?
We need to diversify our portfolio. From my perspective, we must create an equitable path forward to energy independence, not only from foreign countries, but also independence from fossil fuels.
It’s always a false choice between jobs and the environment, and I’ve never bought into that. I’ve lost votes on having a more nuanced view on fracking and other issues. But I also have gained votes on the other side by simply acknowledging the truth and trying to move them along with this realization, that jobs are going to be there. We just have to make sure that the transition is reasonable, fair, and appropriate.
Taft: Do you see a future without fracking?
Fetterman: I do. I hope by the time my oldest son is well into his thirties, we are completely renewable. [Editor’s note: Fetterman’s son, Karl, turned 12 in February. That would mean decarbonizing the grid sometime in the late 2030s or early 2040s, a shade slower than President Biden’s 2035 goal.] That’s what I want. I don’t understand why anybody would say that we can completely convert and offload our entire economy in a tiny abbreviated timeframe. Bold action also has to be measured and realistic. I get the whole moonshot, you know, but these are also real dollars that we’re talking about. We want to make sure that policies have the best chance of actually succeeding in creating the change that we want and that we absolutely have to accomplish.