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Oil and Gas Industry Tries to Rehabilitate Fracking Amid Calls for National Ban

Industry leaders are trying to tie fracking to patriotism through arguments about “energy security.”

Industry leaders are trying to tie fracking to patriotism through arguments about “energy security.”

The American Petroleum Institute, the nation’s largest oil and gas trade association, is promoting a new video touting domestic natural gas production as essential to energy security. The video, titled “America’s Energy Security: A Generation of Progress At Risk?” comes at a time when calls for halting new fossil fuel production and infrastructure are getting louder and coincided with the release of a United Nations report highlighting the misalignment between global climate goals and countries’ plans to develop fossil fuels.

API’s video is part of a broader strategic campaign by the oil and gas industry to quash public support for a national ban on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and to promote itself as the “natural gas and oil industry.” The lobbying group released its video last week to coincide with the fifth Democratic presidential debate, saying, “some Democratic presidential candidates are now proposing restrictive energy policies that would erase a generation of American progress.”

Several leading Democratic presidential contenders have said they would include a ban on fracking as part of their climate plan.

Elizabeth Warren has pledged to immediately end oil and gas leasing offshore and on public lands, and also to “ban fracking — everywhere.” Bernie Sanders includes a ban on fracking in his comprehensive climate plan, and he repeatedly references via Twitter his commitment to ban fracking. Kamala Harris said during a televised “Climate Town Hall” in September that she would seek to ban fracking as well.

Tying Domestic Oil and Gas to Patriotism

The fact that presidential candidates are even talking about a fracking ban undoubtedly has the petroleum industry concerned, as the new API video implies. The video features former presidents from both political parties, from Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush and Barack Obama, declaring the importance of ending reliance on foreign oil and speaking to progress in advancing domestic petroleum production.

The video, which also features patriotic images like the Statute of Liberty and American flags, concludes with the message: “Support America’s Energy Security. Oppose a Fracking Ban.”

Patriotic imagery is central to the branding and messaging of another organization pushing gas industry talking points. That group, The Empowerment Alliance (TEA), is a new dark money organization devoted to “securing America’s energy independence” by singularly promoting natural gas. TEA launched at the end of September and, like API, is gearing up to push back against proposed climate policies and frameworks like the Green New Deal and a fracking ban.

The oil and gas industry pushback comes at a time when momentum is building in the U.S. and abroad towards serious climate action that includes a just transition away from fossil fuels. In September on the eve of the massive global climate strikes, over 400 activists sent a letter to UN Secretary General António Guterres calling for a worldwide ban on fracking.

The United Kingdom announced a temporary fracking ban in early November, and on November 14 the European Investment Bank announced that it would end financing for fossil fuel projects by 2021. In the U.S., California Governor Gavin Newsom recently took a step towards banning fracking in the state by announcing a moratorium on steam-injected drilling along with stricter review and regulations on oil and gas extraction. And last week, the greater Boston community of Brookline, Massachusetts, passed a ban on oil and gas systems in new buildings and renovations, following the lead of California communities that have passed similar measures.

The Gap Between Climate Ambitions and Fossil Fuel Plans

Also last week, on the same day API released its “energy security” video, the United Nations Environment Program and other research organizations published a new report that for the first time analyzes the planned production of fossil fuels in the context of the Paris Agreement goal to limit warming to 2.7º F (1.5°C) and well below 3.6°F (2°C) above preindustrial levels. That report found a large “production gap” between countries’ commitment to limit warming and their plans for expanding coal, oil, and gas production.

Moving away from fossil fuel production…is possible and increasingly necessary to avoid dangerous climate change,” the report says. In other words, significant fossil fuel–producing nations like the U.S. must start curbing production to get in line with global climate commitments, though earlier this month President Trump made official his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement. The UN is now saying that banning fracking or imposing other fossil fuel supply-side policies is necessary to confront the climate crisis.

The oil and gas industry, meanwhile, seems intent on convincing the American public and politicians that banning fracking is a terrible idea, climate crisis aside. On November 14 API posted a commentary claiming that a fracking ban would “devastate U.S. energy and the world economy,” citing another recent article by a Manhattan Institute senior fellow warning of a global recession should the U.S. ban fracking.

The Manhattan Institute is a recipient of fossil fuel funding and regularly attacks clean energy and climate policies, attacks which include making false claims about electric cars and calling the Democratic presidential candidates’ climate plans “pure fantasy.” Running the U.S. economy entirely on clean, renewable energy, the Manhattan Institute claims, is “simply not possible given today’s technology and basic physics.”

Contrast that with the assertion that it is entirely technologically possible, as outlined by Stanford researcher Mark Z. Jacobson. Furthermore, the claim that a fracking ban would cause a global recession completely ignores warnings that the climate crisis (which fracking worsens) literally threatens the global economy, according to sources such as the World Economic Forum.

Echoes From Industry Promoters

Nevertheless, fossil fuel producers and their promoters continue claiming that restraining oil and gas production is the real economic threat. The Detroit News ran a recent op-ed under the headline “Banning fracking would disrupt global economy.” The author of that op-ed, Hillsdale College economics professor Gary Wolfram, has been affiliated with notorious climate science–denying organization the Heartland Institute, which has received funding from Koch Industries and ExxonMobil. The Empowerment Alliance linked to Wolfram’s piece in the “News” section of its website.

Republicans in Congress, recipients themselves of oil and gas cash, are supporting the industry’s opposition to banning fracking. Several Republicans have introduced resolutions prohibiting a unilateral moratorium on fracking by a president. Democrats in the House already blocked one of those resolutions, sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah.

Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania introduced a similar resolution in the Senate. “Natural gas has been a game changer for our country and our commonwealth,” Toomey said. “It is essential we push back on these ideas that threaten the prosperity and security of Pennsylvanians and Americans.”

As Sen. Toomey put it, “these ideas” like banning fracking may threaten the oil and gas industry, but citizens are increasingly viewing reining in the industry as essential to protecting their health and environment. The coalition “Pennsylvanians Against Fracking” is advocating for a fracking moratorium in Toomey’s home state, and last week the state, following visits from families of rare cancer patients, announced nearly $4 million in funding for studies on the health impacts of fracking.

In other states, including Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, a recent poll commissioned by Greenpeace found that two in three voters in these early primary states, regardless of political affiliation, support ending the production of fossil fuels.

API plans to target “key 2020 states” with a digital campaign promoting its new energy security video, relaying the misleading message that American oil and gas production is the only path to energy security, ignoring the fact that 100 percent renewable energy, which over 100 U.S. cities have already committed to, also creates energy security and independence.

A Wind-down of Gas Production”

But as the UN’s new “Production Gap” report reiterates, unrestrained oil and gas production is inconsistent with the world’s climate targets. Current production plans result in 43 percent more oil and 47 percent more gas in 2040 than would be consistent with a 2°C pathway, according to the analysis.

And while the oil and gas industry likes to point to the role of natural gas in reducing carbon emissions (while ignoring increases in globe-warming methane emissions), the Production Gap report warns that “the rapid rise in oil and gas production will push total U.S. extraction-based CO2 emissions 40 percent above 2005 levels by 2025.”

The time to begin planning for a wind-down of gas production is, as with other fossil fuels, already upon us,” the report states.