This single issue could decide how Western Pennsylvania votes

In Western Pennsylvania, it’s not hard to see why the fracking industry is central to the local economy. In parts of Washington County, just 30 miles west of Pittsburgh, the rolling hills are dotted with quaint, rustic farmhouses — and fracking rigs.

Fracking, the drilling for natural gas through shale rock, is big business. Incomes rose in Washington County from $47,823 in 2010 to $63,119 in 2018, according to the US Census. It’s also raised median home prices and has brought nearly 30,000 jobs to the state, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That’s why this issue has risen to the top of Pennsylvania voters minds in the US presidential election.

Pennsylvania is considered a battleground state: President Donald Trump flipped it in 2016 and won by just over 44,000 votes. This year, CNN ranks the state as leaning Democrat, but both candidates have been pushing to win the state’s 20 electoral college votes.

On Monday, Trump held three separate rallies in the state, and former Vice President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to a voter activation office in Chester, just outside of Philadelphia. Both candidates made fracking a central talking point in their speeches to voters. The issue also took center stage at the debate last week when Trump asked Biden about his position on fracking.

But, to the residents of the cities and towns of the Keystone State, fracking is not just an every-four-years presidential debate topic — it’s their livelihoods.

‘It could just be disastrous’

Some in the state believe banning fracking could impact everything, including their own businesses.

Sharlo Tkalcevic, who owns T’s Locker Room Bar and Grille in Burgettstown, said the pandemic has already hurt the economy — and slowed fracking projects — meaning her restaurant has also taken a hit.

On good days — when the high school football team plays at the stadium across the street — the restaurant would be so full, people couldn’t fit in the door. With less work, oil and gas workers also aren’t coming in like they used to. Now, she feels it’s hard to get anyone to come inside.

“It’s almost like a domino effect,” Tkalcevic told CNN. “And it could just be disastrous in my eyes if, first the pandemic and then fracking is banned.”

Her biggest concern right now, she said, is a one-two punch: the future of fracking and the pandemic. Oil and gas workers make up more than 50% of her customers.

“If they’re not working, then I don’t have business,” she said.

Tkalcevic said she had to lay off all her employees except a part-time bartender. Her mother, Sandy, now runs the kitchen with help from her niece, and her husband, Tim, helps manage the bar.

She spends every day at the restaurant, even though they are now closed two days a week, she said. Sleep is hard to come by these days.

“Everything’s good?” Tkalcevic asked a table of diners wearing cowboy hats and big smiles. She nodded along with them, her face mostly hidden behind her face mask.

It was one of only three tables of customers in the restaurant, where neon signs and television screens light the room and the walls are lined with humorous signs and dollar bills with customers’ names written on them.

Tkalcevic’s entire livelihood is wrapped up in the restaurant she’s owned for 12 years. When thinking about closing her doors is too much, her eyes filled with tears.

“It would mean a lot — because I worked hard for this,” she said, “and for it to go away overnight …”

It’s not a sentence she wants to finish.

Natural gas industry put state ‘on the map’

Up until the late 1990’s, the coal industry fueled the economy in western Pennsylvania. But slowly, the industry crumbled — leaving the businesses that relied on it without a path forward.

Then fracking came along.

It was what saved Emanuel Paris’s family business: Alex E. Paris Contracting Company.

The company, which is nearly 100 years old, was all in on coal. But when the industry collapsed they nearly did too. Fracking gave them another chance.

“The natural gas industry put this area on the map,” Emanuel Paris, senior project manager at Alex E. Paris Contracting Company and the grandson of Alex E. Paris, told CNN.

Now, Paris Construction provides piping and rig construction to fracking companies.

“Our company went from approximately 250 employees to 400, to about 650 within years,” he said.

The company, and others in the area, would not exist without the fracking industry, he said.

“Multiple businesses started opening, new people were coming in,” Paris said. “What people don’t realize is, we as a contractor, we buy from suppliers. Those suppliers buy from manufacturers. And those manufacturers purchase raw goods and materials from people that are local. So, it’s a chain effect that has I think, this pretty massive impact on the area.”

In the last year, the fracking industry started shedding jobs because of the overproduction of natural gas, which started bringing down prices. And the pandemic only made that situation worse, Paris said. Last week, he laid off 130 of his employees.

“It’s not something we like to do at all,” he said, while looking around at his family’s expansive company lot, covered with construction parts and equipment.

“Pennsylvania is blessed with the resources that we have here. And right now, I think that (Trump and Biden are) campaigning in this area so hard, because there’s so many jobs and so many families that are affected by the decisions that are made, whether we go forward with fracking, or whether we ban it.”

He said he was weighing those thoughts as he listened to the final presidential debate.

“President Trump has a clearer perspective on keeping fracking going with minimal regulations,” Paris said. “Where (as) Biden in the past and through the campaign has kind of gone back and forth on what he wants to do.”

And that is enough to decide his vote, he said.

‘That’s my livelihood’

For 26 years, David Roule worked his way up in the oil and gas industry. As a business development manager he thought it was a reliable line of work. But suddenly he found himself out of job as a single parent at the height of the pandemic.

“It was tough,” Roule told CNN. “I mean because you didn’t know how things were going go on a month-to-month basis, you know. At times I wasn’t even sure if I was going to be able to take care of my own daughter.”

He sold his four-bedroom home and downsized to a two-bedroom rental apartment with his daughter, Isabella, after being laid off. He was out of work for seven months before he could find a new job in August, and during that time he didn’t qualify for unemployment. The new job, he said, still doesn’t cover all the bills.

Roule said he thinks a lot of the back and forth between the President and Biden is just political theater in order to get elected.

“I’m obviously concerned because that’s my livelihood, but I’m not so sure that (Biden is) really going to follow through with all the things that he talks about in the way that it’s being perceived.”

He did not want to disclose which candidate he is planning to vote for on Election Day.

But, he said, “I have to do what’s in my best interest, because what’s in my best interest career-wise is in the best interest of my daughter. So, my decision will be based on the candidate that I guess has the best interest at heart of the industry that I’m in.”

Even with a new job, he said he feels uneasy about his future. With the election looming, job security in the industry doesn’t feel so certain anymore.

“You just never know how things are going to turn out,” he said.

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