Opposition to Pipelines and Fracking Is Actually a Winning Electoral Strategy

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A quick look at recent news coverage would give you the impression that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as a way to extract oil or gas is having some kind of resurgence or reconsideration, such that the idea of banning the process is being deemed a hot electoral issue. What’s going on here? Is there new information about the process, or the country’s energy policy, that would make sense of claims, like one in a Politico column, that “the deployment of some clean energy technologies could depend, perhaps counterintuitively, on fracking?”

Joining us now to shed some light on the issue is Mitch Jones, policy director at Food & Water Action and Food & Water Watch. He joins us by phone from Baltimore. Welcome to CounterSpin, Mitch Jones.

Mitch Jones: Thank you for having me on. It’s great to be with you.

Let’s start with some basic information. Big picture, we shouldn’t even be having this conversation. We know that we have to keep it in the ground, period; we have to end fossil fuel production. But what are the particular concerns or dangers involved in fracking?

There are several concerns and dangers in fracking, both at a localized and at a global level. So locally, fracked oil and gas wells require vast amounts of water, which becomes contaminated and unusable — although it is often used, unfortunately, to irrigate crops, or to salt roads in places like Pennsylvania where you have to do that in the winter. It can contaminate people’s drinking water, because of underground movement of the fracking fluid to get into people’s aquifers.

There is increasing evidence that there are direct effects, especially for pregnant women living near heavily fracked areas, where there are early births and low birth weights. There are cancer clusters in Southwest Pennsylvania that seem very clearly to be linked to heavy fracking.

And then, of course, there’s the infrastructure that goes with fracking: the pipelines, the compressor stations and everything else that’s needed to move the gas from the well into commerce. And this leads to all sorts of other problems, including land disruption, explosions, leaks of methane. Which then gets us to the global problem, which of course is that fracking is driving climate change and our increasing climate chaos.

You mentioned early on contaminated water, but the fracking industry is exempt, isn’t it, from the Safe Drinking Water Act?

Yes, it is. It has an exemption, which was orchestrated for them in 2005 by Dick Cheney, the former Halliburton CEO, who, of course, was vice president under George W. Bush. And Halliburton, of course, is a large provider of well services for fracking. And it was that exclusion — the “Halliburton loophole,” is what it’s known as — that really led to the boom in fracking since 2005.

Well, you take regulations out of the way….

The idea that you get from media coverage is that fracking is controversial, but it’s been wildly successful. It’s been very, very successful for the industry, for investors, driven a revolution in the US fossil fuel sector, pushed down prices dramatically. Has fracking been all it’s cracked up to be, despite the hazards and harms?

The short answer is no. No, it really hasn’t. If you look at the business model of fracking, we keep being told that there’s this great…. Look, fracking has unleashed massive amounts of oil and natural gas production in the US, there’s no doubt about that; we have become the largest producer in the world because of fracking.

But in addition to all of the environmental problems, and the public health issues, the climate issues that we just mentioned, the business model that fracking is built upon is essentially almost a Ponzi scheme. We just see collapse after collapse after collapse of businesses in this industry. It’s very much still a boom and bust, and we’re currently in a bust period, and the local economies that tie themselves to fracking are going to ride that wave of boom and bust, with people coming in to drill, leaving….

Fracked wells tend to deplete quickly, so that, you know, you get a lot of gas out of a well in Pennsylvania right away, but then it dissipates quickly. So even those people who allowed the frackers to come in to frack on their property, because they were counting on that check, those checks dry up right away.

The industry is being propped up by Wall Street, and by debt. And so we’re just seeing this kind of, like I said, Ponzi scheme of this industry, which over-produces, especially on the gas side. It over-produces its product, which drives down the prices, which means it has to continue to over-produce in order to try to break even. And natural gas prices haven’t been near break-even for years, and, of course, famously, earlier this year, we saw oil futures go negative for the first time ever.

I’m not being facetious, I really would like to ask you to explain this “bridge fuel” idea that you see all around; that somehow, fracking isn’t ultimately good, it’s not ultimately sustainable, but for some reason, we need to use it in order to get off coal and move to renewables. I’m missing something in that analysis.

Yeah, you know, this is an argument that was created by the natural gas industry in order to sell itself as an alternative to coal, and it was very effective for many years: It was adopted by politicians of all stripes, it was pushed by the Obama administration. When Hillary Clinton was secretary of State, she traveled around the world selling fracking and American natural gas. Obama talked it up; it was a big push to claim that in order to move from coal to renewables, you needed fracked gas.

But when academics started to look at the actual climate impacts of the two, it became clear that fracked gas — because of the amount of methane, which is a super potent greenhouse gas, it’s 87 times more potent than carbon dioxide in a 20-year frame — because of that factor, because of the amount of methane that leaks, from wellhead to distribution, fracked gas isn’t actually any cleaner than coal.

So the whole “bridge fuel” line, created by the natural gas industry, and fed and then regurgitated by politicians of both parties, wasn’t only intended to boost this industry, but it turns out that it was a complete lie. The fact of the matter is that fracked natural gas was never going to be cleaner than coal, looked at on a life-cycle basis. And that replacing one with the other wasn’t going to be a bridge to renewables, it was going to be a bridge to climate chaos.

And that’s come to be proven by what we’re seeing these days with the wildfires, the out-of-control tropical storms, droughts, floods; all of the impacts that had been predicted to be in the future are happening now. And fracking really is a key ingredient for why the climate crisis is being brought to us much more quickly than what we were told it was going to be.

Finally, there’s a sense that liberals on the coasts have a problem with fracking, but it’s popular with “real” Americans in the “heartland.” It sounds as though the communities affected are cottoning on to the harms of fracking and, in fact, it’s not as popular as maybe we’re being led to believe. So I wonder if you can just talk about public opinion.

And then there is, in fact, Biden as president can’t — from a Monday to a Tuesday — ban fracking, but there is legislation in Congress to ban fracking, isn’t there?

There is. So we could see in a lot of these stories, some of the ones that you read the headlines from at the top of the interview, want to convey the pundit-class, professional-media-class idea that in places like Western Pennsylvania, or in Ohio, fracking is beloved by everyone, but the public polling just does not say that this is true.

There was even a poll earlier this week, that showed roughly a 50/50 split in Pennsylvania on fracking. And that’s really consistent with a lot of the polling that we’ve seen: Either a small plurality opposes fracking, or a small plurality supports fracking. And a lot of it, of course, is dependent upon how the question is written, which has always been the case in polling. But it really shows that voters, and even voters in areas where fracking is taking place, are deeply divided on the issue.

But more than that, when you take a look at actual candidates on the ground, running on the issue of opposing fracking, or opposing the pipelines that come with fracking, we see — in Pennsylvania in particular — candidates being successful.

In 2018, Summer Lee ran in Allegheny County for the state legislature in Pennsylvania as an anti-fracking candidate, and won. So that’s down by Pittsburgh, for people who aren’t familiar with Pennsylvania. And then in Chester County, on the other side of the state, there was a huge fight against the Mariner East Pipelines, and Danielle Friel Otten managed to actually flip a Republican-held seat by running in opposition to those pipelines.

So if you really look, not only at the polling, but at actual votes being passed, in actual campaigns being run on the issue of fracking and pipelines, the candidates who are opposed to fracking and opposed to pipelines are winning.

And you’re right that a Biden president, even if he were inclined to do so, couldn’t ban fracking everywhere on his first day in office, although he could stop new fracking permits on public lands, and he has said he will do so, and we are counting on him to fulfill that campaign promise.

There are bills in Congress right now that would ban fracking. Senator Sanders in the Senate and Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, along with Congressman Darren Soto of Florida, introduced earlier this year the Fracking Ban Act; there are now 21 total co-sponsors on the Fracking Ban Act in the House. And then just this past September, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and Nanette Barragan of California introduced the Future Generations Protection Act, which would also ban fracking, ban exports of crude oil and natural gas, and also stop new natural gas–fired power plants.

So those pieces of legislation are in the present Congress; we fully expect that we will have fracking-ban legislation in the next Congress. So even if the Biden administration doesn’t want to do it on its own, or can’t do it on its own, the rest of us can pressure our members of Congress to support a ban on fracking everywhere.

We’ve been speaking with Mitch Jones, policy director at Food & Water Action and Food & Water Watch. They’re online at FoodAndWaterAction.org and FoodAndWaterWatch.org.

Mitch Jones, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thank you, I really enjoyed it.