Part of the Series
Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016
Planet or Profit
In the most recent Democratic presidential primary debate, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were asked if they support fracking for oil and gas. Clinton answered first, explaining at length that she doesn’t support fracking where it has been banned, or where it leads to water contamination and methane leaks. She called for tougher regulation of the industry, and for new rules that would require fracking companies to disclose the chemicals they pump underground.
“So, by the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place,” Clinton said.
Bernie Sanders had a different response.
“My answer is a lot shorter,” Sanders said. “No, I don’t support fracking.”
The statement brought cheers from fracking opponents, who quickly took issue with Clinton’s answer. Josh Fox, the director of Gasland, the documentary that helped spark the anti-fracking movement, posted an online rebuttal, pointing out that Clinton’s own website states that domestically produced natural gas plays a role in the transition to clean energy.
For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”
Fracking facilitated a gas boom during much of the Obama administration, and natural gas production is central to the current president’s plan to reduce the nation’s climate-warming carbon emissions. Sanders says he would “accelerate” a transition away from fossil fuels, but would anything change under President Hillary Clinton?
Truthout spoke to Fox about the political implications of the candidate’s position on fracking, and about his new documentary, How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change, which he is currently taking on a nationwide tour.
Mike Ludwig: Watching the debates the other night, we got two very different answers from the candidates on fracking. One sounded like “restrict and regulate,” and then Bernie just said that he is against fracking. How did you react to those two different answers?
Josh Fox: I’m just going to say, I can’t think of a more perfect answer than what Bernie said. There were three aspects to his answer. The question was, “Do you support fracking?” and he just said, “No.” [Laughs] That was pretty much the perfect answer right there, and then he talked about climate change and how important it is to prioritize climate change and have a comprehensive plan to eliminate fossil fuels. Which I thought was incredible. And then, much to my astonishment, Anderson Cooper comes in and he goes, “But what about all these Democratic governors? They say that fracking can be done safely, and they say that it’s a boon to their economy. Are they wrong?” And once again, Bernie hits it out of the park. He just says, “Yes, they’re wrong.” Which is true.
And normally you don’t see that kind level of just, candor, honesty, on the political stage in support of the truth and against wrong ideas. What you heard from Hillary Clinton was exactly the kind of mealymouthed response that you hear from these Democratic governors who are in the pocket of Big Oil and Big Gas. And she was very equivocal in her answers; it’s a similar type of thing that we heard from Barack Obama in 2008 when he said: These companies should abide by the Safe Drinking Water Act. But then he didn’t do anything to reregulate fracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
“Fracked gas is the worst fuel we can use with respect to global warming and climate change.”
So, what Hillary Clinton said was four things. She said, I will support a ban wherever there already is a ban. So [that’s a signal] to her home state of New York that says, New York banned it, they are the people who are responsible for my political career, I have to acknowledge the fact that this is something they should be able to do. And then she says, number two, that wherever there is methane leakage, fracking should not occur. This is kind of a dumb statement because there is methane leakage everywhere fracking occurs, and anyone who knows anything really about fracking knows that there’s methane leakage, not only everywhere fracking occurs, but at every single part of the natural gas system.
So, if you take her words at face value there, it’s actually quite amazing because it means you have to phase out natural gas altogether in every application, which is of course what we have to do. When we talk about going 100 percent renewable, it means phasing out natural gas. Because methane leaks out of the fracking wells, out of the transmission lines, out of the delivery systems, out of the compressor stations, out of the power plants and LNG [liquid natural gas] terminals themselves, fracked gas is the worst fuel we can use with respect to global warming and climate change. It’s interesting that she pointed that out as the number one issue on her radar about fracking, because this was something that the natural gas industry tried to hide for a very long time, that they were leaking so much raw methane into the atmosphere, that their practices are so sloppy, that their pipelines are so shoddy.
Our major cities are just leaking gas out into the atmosphere. Boston is leaking 4 percent of all gas delivered to Boston; Philadelphia, 3 percent; New York, 2 percent; Washington, DC, 5 percent. When you look at Los Angeles, where they both mined for and delivered the gas, 17 percent. Look at what just happened in Aliso Canyon, where you had this enormous geyser of methane exploding out of the ground. That was the single largest point source of emissions in the world, and this is not just carbon dioxide. This is methane. Methane is 86 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. It’s a hugely potent greenhouse gas. So to say you have to stop all these leaks, it basically means, “Let’s just get rid of this system, because we have to phase it out anyway.”
So, does [Hillary Clinton] really mean that? It’s hard for me to imagine, when her website has all these points for how to develop natural gas, when her State Department was responsible for promoting fracking all over the world with the Global Shale Gas Initiative, which exported technology and fracking knowledge to 30 countries worldwide.
“Everywhere the industry goes, there is water contamination at huge rates.”
[Clinton’s] third point was about water contamination. She said, “I won’t support it where there is water contamination.” Well of course, everywhere the industry goes, there is water contamination at huge rates. The well casings crack underground and they leak raw methane, volatile organic compounds, oil, fracking fluids. They leak like crazy under the ground and a very high percentage of leakage gets into aquifers and contaminates groundwater, as well as fracking and the entire oil and gas production cycle leads to surface spills. We had 6,000 spills on the surface of the earth in 2012, which released something like 16 million gallons of oil and gas and wastewater onto the ground. That’s a bigger spill, an accumulative effect … that is bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill.
Then [Clinton said] that the companies have to disclose the chemicals. Well, there is a real mechanism for chemical exposure – it’s called the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Safe Drinking Water Act says that, when you inject toxic material under the ground, you have to report to the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]. So, fracking in 2005 was made exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act by an act of Congress. Now, it would take an act of Congress to reregulate fracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act. So, that is the kind of thing that would require the political revolution that Bernie is talking about, taking back both houses of Congress, making sure that we have our political leadership campaigning during the midterm election and not sitting it out.
The thing that is most troubling about this is that what [Clinton] said on stage, and what her positions are historically, and what her positions on her own website … are in contradiction.
So what does that mean? It either means that she has adopted an entirely new platform on stage at the debate because of the question, and she has to tear down that page on her website and reduce the whole thing so that it reflects what she said on stage that night, or that she actually does not understand or mean the implications of what she did say on the stage. And as, you know, we all have this understanding of Hillary Clinton who is a person who, you know, often says one thing and does another. So my challenge to Hillary is to say: If you think those things that you said on stage are serious, you have to call John Podesta and all the pro-fracking people that you’ve known and say, we’re revising our platform. She could come out and say, because of the science on this question, I don’t support this and we have to phase out this fuel right away.
What I heard from her statement, and you’re correct, it is a little bit different from the material she has on her website …
It’s a lot different. It’s night and day.
It reminded me of what has already been the policy of the Obama administration, where actually natural gas production is part of President Obama’s plan for tackling climate change. Natural gas power plants are part of his Clean Power Plan, which is currently being contested in court, and so I kind of hear a continuation of that in what Hillary said. I wondered if you want to address this idea among Democrats that natural gas production could be a transition fuel – could be part of a climate change policy.
You have to understand a little bit about climate change and a lot about American energy policy to really understand this, but it’s not that difficult. What Obama’s Clean Power Plan does is … [it] facilitates a transition away from coal. It retires all the old coal. That’s a really good thing. Coal … it’s a terrible fuel; it destroys the communities that the coal-fired power plants are in. A lot of minority communities have suffered incredible environmental justice problems with having coal-fired power plants in their communities. We got to get rid of coal.
“There are pipelines that are cutting people all across this nation to pieces. It’s like the Keystone XL fight, times 100.”
Unfortunately, however, what the Clean Power Plan does in its current conception, is it facilities a transition from coal not to renewable energy, to wind and solar, which we need, but to gas. Because it creates a ceiling for carbon dioxide that the gas-fired power plants can actually survive, but the problem with the gas is not just carbon dioxide. The problem is all these methane leaks – and that offsets the CO2 savings to such a degree that it actually makes fracked gas a worse fuel, because of the cumulative impacts. To live next to a coal plant and to live next to a natural gas-fired power plant, yes, you would rather live next to a natural gas-fired power plant. However, all the gas pipelines, just as we just discussed about the methane leakage problem, all the pipelines, the compressor stations, the well pads, the fracking process itself, its leaking a huge amount of methane and other chemicals into the atmosphere. So no, you don’t want to live next to any of that stuff.
So the question is, can you create a plan that is so stringent that it phases both coal and gas? And that’s what Bernie Sanders is saying we should be doing. Bernie Sanders is saying, “I want to make sure that the Clean Power Plan regulations stiffen up about methane so that we transition from coal and gas to renewable energy.”
Now, Hillary Clinton’s plan, on her website, yes, it sounds a lot like that, [but] here’s the big problem. We’ve already warmed the climate by 1 degree. We have enough carbon dioxide and methane in the air already to warm us by another half of a degree. That CO2 that’s already in the atmosphere will continue to warm the earth for the next several decades. So we’re already, for all intents and purposes, at 1.5 degrees. At 2 degrees warming, huge climate impacts happen. At 2 degrees warming, we start to engage a process whereby we have five to nine meters of sea level rise. Five to nine meters of sea level rise means New York goes under water, Philadelphia goes under water, Boston goes under water, DC goes under water, Miami, Charleston, I mean, you don’t want to get to 2 degrees.
So you basically have to start to ramp down all of carbon and methane emissions sources now. Right now. Which means, we cannot build a whole new generation of fracked gas power plants, but that’s exactly what they are proposing. Three hundred new fracked gas power plants all across America are being proposed and being fought off by the local communities there. I’m going to protest one Thursday night in Wawayanda, New York. We fought off a couple of fracked gas power plants last month in Denton, Texas, the birthplace of fracking. These are not just power plants, but they are also the pipelines that serve those power plants. The Constitution pipeline, the AIM pipeline, the NED pipeline, the Pilgrim pipeline, the Tennessee pipeline expansion, the Millennium pipeline. There are pipelines that are cutting people all across this nation to pieces. It’s like the Keystone XL fight, times 100.
So, this Clean Power Plan will create need for a hell of a lot more fracking. That’s a huge issue. Two million fracking wells is what the industry wants to drill, and you’re talking about all these power plants, pipelines, LNG, its another 30 to 40 years of natural gas. Now, what Lester Brown has told us is that we need to reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2020 if we are going to save the Greenland ice sheet, and save a huge amount of that sea level rise. Eighty percent of emissions by 2020 means that you can’t build any of those power plants. Period. You’ve got to go in another direction. That’s why Bernie is saying, and Bill McKibben is saying in the Solutions Project, and Mark Jacobson at Stanford and myself and Naomi Klein and all these people are saying, you can’t build these power plants. You’ve got to phase out natural gas and you’ve got to do it right away.
I wanted to ask you about your new documentary because it centers on climate change. You know, for our readers and even for the people who work at Truthout, this has been a difficult issue to cover because the situation is getting so dire, and it sounds like there is a personal aspect to this new documentary that addresses that.
Thank you for mentioning that it’s hard to cover because it’s so upsetting. It really is. It’s not just so upsetting; it’s so late in the game. When you really start to learn about climate change, you realize, wow, we really needed to be working on this 20 years ago. And we really needed to be dealing with this, and, you know, Jimmy Carter was dealing with this, he put solar panels on the roof of the White House, but you know, we really needed to ramp this up a long time ago because we are already so far. And a lot of people will say we are at a place where we are going to have a massive, civilization-wide upheaval. Hundreds of millions of climate refugees. Cities going underwater. People not having enough to eat. Extreme weather becoming the norm. Droughts. Floods. Famine. Rate of infectious diseases going up because of warmer climates in tropical regions, tropical diseases spreading out of tropical regions. A vision of kind of hell on earth. When you really study climate change, you have to reconcile yourself with that very bleak picture, and it’s really hard. And that’s what the movie does. I mean the movie sort of rams into the brick wall of climate change at 100 miles an hour.
I think I walk into the question very similarly to the way I do with Gasland, which is, “oh, here, let’s look at this,” and you realize very quickly … that we’re talking about being too late. And that’s a very difficult thing to deal with. At 2 degrees warming we lose 30 to 50 percent of all the species on the planet, you know, that’s a lot of goodbyes. So How to Let Go of the World has a lot to do with letting go of that “save the world” impulse. It has to do with letting go specifically of the world that must change, which is the world of greed and competition.
And then, the second half of the title, Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change, well, all of the things that climate can’t change are all of our mooring posts, they’re our civic virtues, they’re the things that make us human in a good way. They’re the things that give us a sense of who we are and what we’re doing and how do we live. Human rights, democracy, creativity, courage, love, community, innovation. These are the things that climate can’t change; these are the things we must hold onto if we are going to have any sense of how to navigate this most intense period of change that has ever visited upon human beings.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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