Listening to the Voters: Energy drives swing vote

Four years ago, Washington County did something it had not done in 40 years of politics: it went Republican. John McCain was the victor in this picturesque, rolling countryside by four points over then Senator Barack Obama.

The shift from blue to red makes Washington, Pennsylvania a political anomaly. It's a democratic leaning region heavily populated with union workers, but according to County Commissioner Diana Irey Vaughan the voting shift can be explained along economic lines.

"The recession really hasn't had a huge impact in Washington County. We're third in the nation in job growth and 40 percent of that's due to the Marcellus Shale Plate."

The Marcellus Shale Plate, a giant formation of sedimentary rock that runs through New York and Pennsylvania and into West Virginia and Ohio is rich with oil and natural gas and has made this rural county a mini-boomtown. By some estimates there's enough natural gas to supply all of America for the next 25 years - and people working in the energy business understand their financial future depends on a supportive White House.

"I think Washington County voters are more likely to look at the candidate and look at the issues and the positions of the candidate when they vote rather than just pulling the party lever," said Vaughan, adding "people in southwestern Pennsylvania in general and especially Washington County are very supportive of the energy industry. We all want to make sure that the energy industry is responsible and clean and green and safe but we're open to allowing energy independence to start right here."

Drive the back roads here and you're likely to see lawn signs supporting or decrying the energy business.  'Stop The War on Coal - Fire Obama' reads one, symbolic of the political divide among voters. This area was built on the back of coal, a source of energy that fueled the industrial revolution and supplied the steel mills of nearby Pittsburgh. Consol Energy is one of the largest employers in the county and according to company CEO J. Brett Harvey this election is in many respects a referendum on the nation's energy policy.

"I think the American energy policy is political and we're not looking at our resources," he said. "We have 30 percent of the world's coal, we've found all this natural gas and we're debating whether to use it or not. We need to find ways of using it for the good of the people because it's our resources ... It's red, white and blue."

Harvey believes people are voting for their jobs, and in some cases the natural resources beneath their land. Energy companies are paying big bucks for mineral rights, something retired farmer Bill Black has wholeheartedly embraced. Black and his wife Sheila bought their 200 acre farm in 1963 and he readily admits that at times it was a struggle.

"Until this gas boom, oil boom came along people found it difficult to pay their taxes. Even more difficult if they had a mortgage," he said from a chair on his front porch.

Black's fortunes changed when oil was discovered beneath his land and he sold the rights to Texas based energy company Range Resources. The tranquil peace and quiet he's enjoyed for almost fifty years is sometimes disturbed by the roar of heavy trucks going back and forth to the oil platform a few hundred yards from his farmhouse but Black said he was happy with his decision and has already made up his mind on who he will vote for in November.

"Three and a half years ago we talked about change and the change that we have seen we really don't like," he said. "We're hoping that Mr. Romney can do some things."

The money from the oil well is allowing the Blacks to fund their grandchildren's college educations and providing a nice financial cushion in their golden years.

"It was really amazing in '08," he recalled. "That's when some of the local people first received royalties and some of those original checks were for over a quarter of a million dollars and to these people that's an enormous amount of money."

That's not to say that everyone here is supportive of energy. At the weekly farmers market in Washington local residents shop for organic produce from local farmers and artisans. Vendor Jodi Borello said she usually votes Republican but in this election she plans to vote for President Obama because of her environmental concerns.

"I have 28 gas wells, three frack ponds and two fresh water ponds within one mile of my home and I'm very concerned about it. The things I have witnessed and see and what I personally have gone through ... I'm very concerned about it," she said from her stall where she sells handmade pasta.

Her thoughts are echoed by others who have concerns about the environmental impact of fracking, the method used to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale Plate and it reinforces the divide between voters here that goes well beyond party affiliation. The newfound energy and newfound wealth is changing the landscape here, and may well be changing its politics too.

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