NRSC’s Misleading Green New Deal Attack on Fetterman

John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, says he “never supported the Green New Deal” though he does support a longer-term transition away from fossil fuels.

Nonetheless, a TV ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee argues that Fetterman is “too radical” and misleadingly tries to put a price tag on his position, saying that Fetterman has “embraced parts of the Green New Deal that’d cost you 50,000 bucks a year.” That figure is based on a speculative estimate about the cost of implementing policies to achieve the aims of the Green New Deal, and without any evidence that Fetterman supports all of the policies on which the estimate was based.

The ad also features actors purporting to be from Fetterman’s team carrying signs that read “End Fracking.” Back in 2016, Fetterman supported a temporary moratorium on new fracking “until we get an extraction tax, and the strictest enviro[mental] regulations in this country.” But Fetterman now says a short-term expansion of fracking is needed to bolster the country’s energy security, a position that has put him at odds with some in the more progressive wing of his own party.

Fetterman said that over the long term – over the course of a couple decades – he hopes the country transitions to using only renewable energy.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee says it plans to spend about $1.5 million to air the ad in Pennsylvania, where Fetterman will face Republican nominee Dr. Mehmet Oz in the November general election to replace outgoing Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.

Green New Deal Claim

Let’s start with the claim that the Green New Deal would “cost you 50,000 bucks a year.” That comes from a 2019 analysis of the Green New Deal by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank that advocates less government regulation. The Green New Deal was introduced as a nonbinding resolution with lofty goals to, among other things, “achiev[e] net-zero greenhouse gas emissions” through a “10-year national mobilization effort” that would include building “smart” power grids to reduce consumption in peak periods, upgrading buildings to be more energy and water efficient, and reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions produced by transportation and agriculture.

The resolution is short on policy specifics that might be employed to meet those goals, which would require separate legislation. The authors of the CEI report refer to the Green New Deal as an “ideological signaling exercise” and say that rather than “a set of genuine policy proposals” it is “perhaps better described as a far-reaching, aspirational set of guideposts for a resurgent progressive force in American politics.”

And so CEI said it made “a considerable number of assumptions” to quantify the potential cost of de-carbonizing the economy. Specifically, CEI looked at the potential cost of transforming energy production, transportation, shipping and construction, and how much that might cost households in five sample states.

In Pennsylvania, CEI estimated implementation could cost $72,439 per household in the first year, $45,026 in the second through fifth years and $38,506 per year after that. The NRSC ad averages that to $50,000 per year.

We’ve written about another attempt to put a price tag on the Green New Deal, and we noted that many experts told us the nonbinding resolution is too vague to try to estimate its cost. Ultimately, lawmakers would have to propose legislation to act on any of the broad goals in the resolution. And so we won’t dive too deeply into the speculative assumptions that underpin the CEI report.

The bigger problem is that there is no evidence that Fetterman supports the specific policy prescriptions that the CEI report relies on. At a campaign event in February, for instance, Fetterman told the crowd, “I never supported the Green New Deal.” Fetterman campaign spokesman Joe Calvello pointed to that citation, as well as to a Politico story on Feb. 8, 2021, that states Fetterman “has not embraced the ‘Green New Deal.’”

Calvello told us via email that the $50,000 figure is a CEI estimate of “the costs of four specific portions of the Green New Deal to Pennsylvania families – none of which Mr. Fetterman supports. Fetterman does not support any part of a rapid ‘10-year transition’ as outlined under the Green New Deal. He supports a balanced and gradual energy transition spanning decades that respects Pennsylvania communities that depend on the fossil fuel industry.”

But in a letter to TV stations asked by the Fetterman campaign to pull the ad, Christine Fort, a lawyer for the NRSC, argued the ad never said Fetterman supported the Green New Deal, only that he embraced “parts of it.” And, she said, the ad never claimed he specifically supported parts of the Green New Deal that a conservative think tank estimated would cost Americans $50,000 per year, only that the Green New Deal “generally” was estimated to cost that much.

“The Advertisement explicitly states that Mr. Fetterman has ‘embraced parts of the Green New Deal,’ and proceeds to convey an estimate that such legislation would cost American households $50,000 per year,” Fort wrote. “The costs referenced are attributed to the Green New Deal generally, and not, as Counsel would have you believe, to those climate policies Mr. Fetterman only embraces during election season.”

We think a reasonable assessment of the ad is that it leaves viewers with the impression that Fetterman supports Green New Deal policies that would cost Americans $50,000 a year.

The NRSC cites several stories to back up its claim that Fetterman supports parts of the Green New Deal:

  • A Fox Business story from Jan. 24 said simply that Fetterman supports “parts of the Green New Deal,” but doesn’t get any more specific than that.
  • An Oct. 26, 2021, story in The Nation magazine said Fetterman supports “aspects of the Green New Deal,” though again, it doesn’t say what aspects.
  • In an MSNBC interview on Feb. 8, 2021, Fetterman said, “We must maintain a balance between transitioning away from fossil fuels but also safeguarding and holding the union way of life sacred and protecting those jobs and those workers that are currently in that sector.” MSNBC correspondent Hallie Jackson then asked, “So given that response, safe to say that you are not fully or wholly embracing the Green New Deal?” Fetterman responded, “I’m embracing what the green ideal considers a priority. Like, you know, the Green New Deal isn’t a specific piece of legislation. What I am in support of is acknowledging that the climate crisis is absolutely real. The science is clear. We must act decisively. But we also must protect and we also must have a realistic transition.”
  • In a video of a Pride Day event on June 26, 2021, according to NRSC backup material, an attendee asked Fetterman about the Green New Deal. Fetterman responded, “I think it’s critical that we recognize that we want to transition away from fossil fuels, and we need to transition away from industries that ultimately contribute to it, but it also has to be done in a way that is consistent with the jobs that are involved in these industries. You know, I have never taken a dime from the fossil fuels industry or anything, so I think it’s important we have a balanced approach to all of that. The future is going to be in renewable energy, but ultimately though too, this transition isn’t something that can happen overnight, it can’t leave communities and people and workers in that industry behind.”

None of these details what aspects of the Green New Deal Fetterman supports, though Fetterman did express broad agreement with the need to transition away from fossil fuels over time. In none of those instances did he commit to a 10-year program prescribed in the Green New Deal, which is what CEI says it modeled. In fact, Fetterman repeatedly expressed the desire to balance a transition from fossil fuels with protecting the jobs of people currently working in that industry.

On the subject of climate change, the Fetterman campaign website says simply, “Climate change is an existential threat. We need to transition to clean energy as quickly as possible, and we can create millions of good union jobs in the process.”

Fracking

Regular readers will know that we caution viewers of political ads to pay attention not just to what’s being said, but also to gauge whether the images on the screen square with the facts. The NRSC ad shows people (actors) unloading protest signs from the back of a Fetterman campaign  van. Two of the signs read, “End Fracking.”

In her letter defending the ad, NRSC attorney Fort says the ad does not claim Fetterman supports a ban on fracking, which is more formally known as hydraulic fracturing, a drilling technique used to extract oil and natural gas, which are fossil fuels, from rock formations underground. 

“Rather, the Advertisement is accurately referencing the fact that Mr. Fetterman has supported an end to fracking, the timeline of which, however, is in no way specified,” Fort wrote.

The NRSC points to a questionnaire Fetterman filled out during an unsuccessful Senate bid in 2016 in which he responded “yes” to a question about whether he supports a moratorium on fracking. The NRSC also points to two 2016 tweets from Fetterman: one on March 6, 2016, in which Fetterman quoted a position he took in a Democratic debate, “I support a moratorium on fracking in PA until we get an extraction tax, and the strictest enviro regulations in this country,” and another on April 24, 2016, in which he tweeted a debate quote, “I support a moratorium on fracking.”

During a debate on April 5, 2016, Fetterman said, “There were two things that were never gotten right about fracking when it was instituted in this state, arguing whether we should have had it or not. And that is, one, no fracking company pays a tax to – excise our gas – from our land, which is, again, outrageous. And two, we’ve never had the kind of environmental controls that could have prevented the kind of spills, the accidents, the creek contaminations that we see in the news, and the explosions that kill people. And it was never taken care of and instituted correctly at first and we in this country, and we in this state, need to address that head on, and make sure that those two conditions are met.”

So Fetterman was not, at that time, proposing a permanent ban on fracking, but rather a moratorium on new fracking pending implementation of an extraction tax — which all other major fracking states have — and stricter environmental regulations.

Later in the debate, Fetterman said, “There’s no such thing as a green fracker.”

His position on fracking has changed since then, and he is no longer calling for an immediate moratorium in new fracking.

“We can’t just throw [out] all of these union jobs and all these workers’ jobs and say, ‘Well, just go learn to code and maybe you can get on at Google or someplace,’” Fetterman told Politico in February 2021.

In March 2021, Fetterman told WESA that he did not support a fracking moratorium or ban.

“But what I hope we do, is we make it so that it becomes there is eventually a de facto moratorium because the transition is going to be toward green and renewable energy,” Fetterman said.

Last month, Fetterman told StateImpact Pennsylvania he supports expanding fracking production in the short term.

“We need to have American energy,” Fetterman said. “We need to transition to make investments to make green American energy on an ongoing basis and evolve towards that, but right now our energy security is paramount.”

It is a position that Fetterman acknowledges has put him at odds with some in the more progressive wing of his party.

“There needs to be a reasoned, rational approach, but also with the explicit agreement and knowledge that we must transition towards green, renewable energy,” Fetterman told Gizmodo in February. “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,” Fetterman said. “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.”

In that same interview, Fetterman was asked if he sees a future without fracking.

“I do. I hope by the time my oldest son is well into his thirties, we are completely renewable,” Fetterman said.

Gizmodo noted that Fetterman’s son is 12, which would put the timeline at more than 20 years.

“That’s what I want,” Fetterman said. “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.”

The use of purported Fetterman team members carrying “End Fracking” signs could leave the impression with voters that Fetterman supports a ban on fracking, or even a temporary moratorium (as he did in 2016). But Fetterman never supported an immediate ban, and he no longer supports a moratorium, as he has articulated numerous times during the campaign. He does, however, support a slow transition away from fossil fuels in general, and that he envisions will naturally culminate in an end to fracking in the next couple of decades.

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