With climate disruption looming over the 2020 elections, 10 Democratic presidential candidates have announced that they support a nationwide ban on fracking.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the oil and gas production technology that has positioned the United States as the global leader in fossil fuel production and caused environmental controversies across the country. While some Democrats have pushed for tougher regulation of the industry, fracking has generally enjoyed political support from politicians in both parties since the technology began unlocking massive oil and gas reserves well over a decade ago.
The fact that nearly half the Democratic candidates — including several members of Congress — now support an outright ban represents a significant shift in the political status quo. It’s a clear sign that climate change, fossil fuels and the movement for a Green New Deal will dominate the primaries for months to come.
Candidates Bernie Sanders, Jay Inslee, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard, Peter Buttigieg, Bill de Blasio, Marianne Williamson, Wayne Messam and Eric Swalwell all support a ban on hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” according to a survey updated Monday by The Washington Post. Several other candidates, including Kirsten Gillibrand and Beto O’Rourke, would not ban fracking but support tougher environmental regulation of the oil and gas industry. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris did not respond to the survey.
Biden released his much-anticipated climate plan on Tuesday, but it says nothing about fracking. The plan embraces the Green New Deal “framework” favored by climate activists, but environmental groups were disappointed by the details. Similar to policies rolled out under President Obama, Biden would support investment in nuclear energy as well as “carbon capture” technology that traps emissions from fossil fuel energy sources, two false solutions often opposed by environmentalists who argue that clean energy means no more fracking, mining for coal and nuclear plants.
John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado who famously boasted about drinking fracking fluid, is the only Democratic presidential candidate who has enthusiastically supported fracking and pushed back against increased federal oversight.
The anti-fracking positions taken by a number of prominent Democrats stand in sharp contrast to the Trump administration, which has declared itself the oil and gas industry’s “best friend” and feverishly rolled back environmental protections and federal efforts to respond to the climate crisis. The Democrats’ positions also diverge from past policies of the Obama administration, which viewed fracked natural gas as a “bridge fuel” that burns cleaner than coal.
For some candidates, support for a fracking ban is not a total surprise. De Blasio and Sanders hail from New York and Vermont, where fracking is unpopular among voters and banned by the state government. Governor Inslee of Washington recently signed a law banning fracking in his home state and has made his plan to tackle climate change the centerpiece of his presidential campaign.
However, Democratic presidential hopefuls need support from voters beyond their current constituents to win the primary race, not to mention the general election. The sheer number of Democrats supporting a ban on the technology that has turned the U.S. into the world’s premier fossil fuel producer is evidence that the threat of climate change and the push for a Green New Deal is energizing the party’s base and pulling high-profile candidates to the left.
It’s also a sign that voters who have not benefited financially from the oil and gas boom are wary of fracking and the environmental problems that come with it. Widespread fracking and the disposal of fracking wastewater has been linked to water contamination, air pollution and even earthquakes. The industry has rapidly expanded its infrastructure as a result of the fracking boom and a glut of cheap natural gas, forcing communities to contend with new pipelines, oil and gas storage depots, petrochemical refineries, plastics plants and other potential sources of pollution.
“Front-line communities across the country are dealing every day with the human health and environmental risks that fracking inherently brings,” said Mitch Jones, the energy and climate director at the environmental group Food and Water Watch, in a statement. “Fracking poisons air and water, and makes people sick. Americans know it, and finally Democratic candidates are beginning to get the picture.”
Recent Gallup polling shows that public concern about the environment and support for government action is the highest in over a decade, and a majority of voters support tougher regulation of fracking and other industries. Last year, a Pew Research Center poll found that 58 percent of U.S. respondents opposed “more hydraulic fracturing” to meet energy needs, including 83 percent of “liberal Democrats.” Polling has consistently found that climate change is a top issue for Democratic voters.
“Given that most Americans oppose fracking, for good reason, it’s not surprising that more and more presidential candidates are coming to the prudent conclusion that fracking simply must be banned,” Jones said.
Yet President Trump has pulled the nation in the exact opposite direction in his first term, and has unabashedly embraced the domestic fossil fuel boom while pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord. His administration has rolled back environmental protections, attempted to expand drilling on public lands and expedited new pipeline approvals.
The fossil fuel boom has created a glut of cheap natural gas, and the administration and the industry are eager to boost exports. Last week, administration officials boasted about spreading “freedom gas” throughout the world as they announced the approval of a new fracked gas export facility in Texas.
When it comes to fossil fuels, the U.S. is clearly polarized. On one side is Trump and red states in the nation’s interior that have cashed-in on the oil and gas boom, despite the environmental risks. On the other side is the anti-pipeline resistance and environmental justice movements, as well as supporters of the Green New Deal, a sweeping vision to build new economies and upgrade the nation’s crumbling infrastructure with massive investment in green energy and technology.
The Green New Deal is outlined in a congressional resolution sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey. It has become a prominent target for Trump and other Republicans who are stoking fears about “socialism” in order to drive older voters and conservatives to the polls. The resolution has little chance of passing in its current form, but environmentalists see the legislation as a jumping-off point for visualizing a sustainable future and building a movement around that vision.
Indeed, the Green New Deal appears to be framing the presidential primary debate. The resolution calls for reducing carbon emissions to “net-zero” by 2050, which would require a broad transition to a renewable energy economy and a serious reduction in fossil fuel production and consumption. This may explain why many of the same Democrats who support the Green New Deal also support a ban on fracking, according to The Washington Post survey.
“I favor a ban on new fracking and a rapid end to existing fracking so that we can build a 100 percent clean energy society as soon as possible,” Buttigieg told The Washington Post.
The Sanders campaign released a similar statement and pledged to “rapidly move to 100 percent clean, sustainable energy.” Sanders has championed the Green New Deal, which he says would create millions of well-paying jobs while protecting the environment.
It is still early in the primary season, and many Democrats have yet to solidify their energy and climate agendas. Senator Booker, for example, supports a fracking ban but also supports expanding nuclear power plants as a source of carbon-neutral energy, a position that puts him at odds with many environmentalists. Biden has taken heat from opponents on his left for approaching climate change with a “middle ground” energy policy that would likely embrace fracking. The debate is expected to center around the term “net-zero emissions,” because carbon offset programs, cap-and-trade schemes, carbon capture and other forms of climate mitigation would allow the fossil fuel industry to continue fracking and drilling for decades.
“These 10 presidential candidates that claim to oppose fracking now need to talk in specific detail about exactly what they would do to halt fracking as soon as they take office,” Jones said. “And the candidates that haven’t yet publicly opposed fracking need to pull their heads out of the sand, and get on board with the will of most Americans.”
This story has been updated.