Love it or hate it, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has become central to the United States’ energy portfolio. Fracking has unlocked vast domestic fossil fuel reserves over the past decade, and plenty of oil and gas still remains in the ground. Whether it stays there or not is the question now facing the politicians scrambling to curb climate disruption, and the debate over fracking has driven a wedge down the middle of the Democratic Party.
The scope of fracking in the United States is staggering. Since 2005, the oil and gas industry has used high-volume fracking technology to pump 239 billion gallons of water laced with 23 billion pounds of toxic chemicals underground at 137,000 fracking wells across the country, according to a new report by Environment America.
The fracking boom rapidly industrialized rural areas, damaging 679,000 acres of land and bringing controversy along with it. The US Geological Survey now estimates that 7 million people in six states are at risk of experiencing fracking-related earthquakes, and fracking has been linked to water contamination, air pollution and climate-warming methane emissions.
Fracking also helped some people become very wealthy as the US emerged as a world leader in natural gas production. The Obama administration took notice, declaring gas to be a “bridge fuel” that would replace coal as a main source of electric power and ease a lumbering transition toward renewable energy.
Polls show that more people in the United States now oppose fracking than support it, including many Democrats. Obama’s decision to put a transition to clean energy on hold in favor of another fossil fuel set the stage for a fierce showdown between Hillary Clinton, who seems content to continue down Obama’s path, and Bernie Sanders, who opposes fracking and the fossil fuel industry’s powerful influence on politics.
Clinton Defends Obama’s Fracking Legacy
During the Democratic debate last week in Brooklyn, New York, Hillary Clinton also called natural gas a “bridge fuel,” not just for the United States, but also for the world.
“Fracking and natural gas blocks investment dollars in renewable energy, period.”
Clinton defended her position on fracking, which she has promised to regulate but not eliminate, even on public lands, as well as her role in promoting the technology around the world as US secretary of state. It was the Obama administration’s foreign policy, she explained, to help countries “get out from under the constant use of coal” and “pressure from Russia,” a rival in both geopolitics and fossil fuel production.
Clinton said the US should cross the natural gas bridge “as quickly as possible,” and she has promised to create heavy incentives for renewable energy. Climate activists, however, say fracking is a bridge to nowhere, and most Democratic voters agree.
“Fracking and natural gas blocks investment dollars in renewable energy, period,” said Jason Kowalski, a spokesperson for the climate justice group 350 Action.
Last month, a Gallup poll found that 51 percent of people living in the United States now oppose fracking, up from 40 percent last year. Opposition among Democratic voters is even higher. Only 25 percent of Democrats say they support fracking, and 89 percent want elected officials to prioritize alternative energy sources over fossil fuels like fracked oil and gas.
The polls are not lost on Sanders, who has touted his opposition to fracking, offshore drilling and fossil fuel extraction on public lands in an effort to peel environmentally conscious voters away from Clinton, especially in New York, where a virtual ban on fracking enjoys widespread support. Sanders called Clinton out for her support of fracking during the recent debate and suggested that only he has the “guts to take on the fossil fuel industry.”
“We have got to lead the world in transforming our energy system, not tomorrow, but yesterday,” Sanders said.
Clinton responded with a sharp defense of the Obama administration’s “framework” for combating climate change, saying that the president has done an “incredible job” despite “implacable hostility from the Republicans in Congress.”
“We have got to lead the world in transforming our energy system, not tomorrow, but yesterday.”
The coal mining industry has started to decline, but it might be declining much more quickly were it not for some corporate roadblocks: The Obama administration’s landmark Clean Power Plan, which uses emission caps designed to force old, dirty coal plants to close and push utilities toward other energy sources, is tied up by legal challenges from the industry. The case is expected to end up before the Supreme Court, and Clinton, perhaps referring to her own electability, said that’s one reason why it’s “crucial” to fill the court’s vacant seat with Obama’s nominee.
The Clean Power Plan enjoys widespread support among environmentalists, but they are still demanding tighter regulation of fracking — and many want oil and natural gas out of the picture all together.
“It’s going to be up to how the plan is implemented in the states to maximize what it can do,” said Elizabeth Ouzts, a spokeswoman for Environment America. “[The Clean Power Plan] is by no means enough.”
About 5.3 billion pounds of methane entered the atmosphere during fracked gas production and distribution in 2014 alone, according Environment America’s analysis. That’s equivalent to the annual global warming emissions produced by 17 million motor vehicles or 22 coal-burning power plants.
“The Obama administration’s climate legacy is banking on the idea that moving from coal to gas would reduce our emissions, but recent data shows that that might not be the case,” Kowalski said.
The link between fracking and climate disruption created an opening for Sanders, who went on the offensive during the debate and compared his vision for tackling climate change to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s aggressive, government-led approach to rebuilding the economy after the Great Depression “to defeat Nazism and Japanese imperialism.”
“All right, here is — here is a real difference,” Sanders said during the debate, comparing himself to Clinton. “This is a difference between understanding that we have a crisis of historical consequence here, and instrumentalism and those little steps are not enough.”
One thing the candidates do agree on: solar panels. Both Clinton and Sanders promised to put up millions of them.
Fossil Fuel Interests and Climate Justice
The sharp words between Sanders and Clinton come at time when oil and gas production has slowed due to global energy glut and the industry is under heavy public scrutiny over allegations that it deliberately misled the public about climate change despite knowing about the threat for decades.
“We should be wrestling with the idea that fossil fuel money is poisoning our democracy.”
Recent investigative reports also show that oil and gas interests secured loopholes that exempt fracking from major environmental regulations with the help of “shadow lobbyists” in the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, a decades-old “government agency” that brings regulators and industry representatives together to influence elected officials.
“We should be wrestling with the idea that fossil fuel money is poisoning our democracy,” said Kowalski, who added that environmentalists should “kick the industry while it’s down.”
Clinton is fighting off accusations that she is in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry, including a few jabs from Sanders during the New York debate last week. Individuals in the industry, including lobbyists, have donated to her campaign, but the campaign has not received direct donations from oil and gas companies.
However, fossil fuel interests have given at least $3.5 million to a super PAC supporting Clinton, according to Greenpeace. That super PAC, Priorities USA, was originally created to support President Obama and has become one of Sanders’ favorite targets.
Under pressure from the environmental wing of her party, Clinton has attempted to position herself as a champion of environmental justice, seizing on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, as a springboard for discussing these issues. Her campaign recently released a plan that answers widespread calls to address the disproportionate impacts of pollution and climate change on low-income and minority communities.
Clinton aims to modernize drinking water systems and eliminate lead as a major health threat within five years. She said she would also enhance penalties for criminal polluters and bolster enforcement of environmental protections under the Civil Rights Act, a task that advocates say has long been ignored.
Climate justice advocates, however, will not be satisfied as long as fracking is on the table.
“Hillary Clinton is finally saying what movement leaders [have been] saying for years, that climate change is an environmental justice issue,” Kowalski said. “If Hillary Clinton really cares about environmental justice, she needs to be grappling with the fact that fracking is concentrated in low-income and communities of color. What lessons are we learning from Flint?”
Sanders has his own climate plan that recognizes the “heightened public health risks faced by low-income and minority communities” and includes a proposal to tax fossil fuels and use the revenues to pay for resilience infrastructure in the poor communities of color that are most impacted by climate disruption. It’s unclear, however, if Sanders could implement the plan without cooperation from Congress.
Clinton may not oppose fracking like Sanders, but Kowalski said she still has a strong position on the issue, pointing out that she has promised to strengthen environmental regulations and would not interfere with local and state bans.
Closing major regulatory loopholes or banning fracking would require legislation, and environmentalists often see local bans as the most politically salient path to halting the practice. The oil and gas lobby is one of the most powerful in the country, so fracking opponents are not counting on Congress to place new restrictions on fossil fuel production.
Kowalski said there is one thing the next president could do “on day one” in office: answer widespread calls for an executive order banning oil and gas production on public lands and in large swaths of ocean under federal control. Sanders is an outspoken supporter of such a ban, while Clinton has only proposed vague “reforms” to federal fossil fuel leasing programs.