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Several contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination have promised a nationwide ban on fracking. How viable is that proposal and do they really want to do it – or is it just a campaign promise they can never fulfil?
Banning ‘fracking’ – the process of extracting oil and natural gas via hydraulic fracturing – is popular among environmentalists and activists who are increasingly concerned about climate change. Among the candidates who have backed a ban are the current frontrunner Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), as well as her colleagues Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Kamala Harris (D-California).
Yet, the fracking boom of the past decade has transformed the US from an energy importer to an exporter, impacting the economy in a major way – and even giving Washington a certain amount of foreign policy leverage that Democrats might find difficult to abandon.
Clean or deadly?
Hydraulic fracturing involves horizontally pumping water, sand and a mixture of chemicals into rock at extremely high pressure, creating fractures that release trapped oil and natural gas.
Dead sunflowers stand in a field near dormant oil drilling rigs which have been stacked in Dickinson, North Dakota © REUTERS/Andrew Cullen
The industry has touted fracking as a ‘cleaner’ alternative to coal – another bugbear of the environmentalists. In reality, the method poses “significant threats to air, water, health, public safety, climate stability, seismic stability, community cohesion, and long-term economic vitality,” according to last year’s report by the Concerned Health Professionals of New York, which concludes:
There is no evidence that fracking can operate without threatening public health directly or without imperiling climate stability upon which public health depends.
Among the disastrous effects on the environment of fracking are the contamination of groundwater and surrounding soils and vegetation. Some studies have even linked fracking to earthquakes, due to the high pressure used to extract the oil and gas from rock. Researchers speaking at the 2019 annual Seismological Society of America meeting said they had identified “more than 600 small earthquakes” in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas linked to activity in the wells.
Then there’s the effect on air quality and climate change. Fracking could be even worse than coal for carbon emissions, according to research by Cornell University’s Robert W. Howarth. This is because of the release of methane in the process, coupled with emissions produced during transportation.
Four US states – Washington, Vermont, New York and Maryland – have already prohibited fracking. But before the new 2020 presidential election race kicked off, the idea of a nationwide ban was not a hot topic.
Realistic possibility or pipe dream?
A president like Warren or Sanders could attempt to get anti-fracking legislation through Congress, but that would be a gargantuan task, especially if the Republicans still control the Senate. If they try to do it through regulations and executive orders, the next Republican administration could simply rescind them later.
While executive action could ban fracking on public lands, much of the oil and gas exploration happens on privately owned land. Former president Barack Obama balanced his stricter regulations with rhetoric about the benefits of fracking, and still faced legal challenges at every turn.
A man holds a sign in protest against fracking during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia © REUTERS/Scott Audette
The US oil and gas industry is a hugely powerful one. For years, anti-fracking and other environmental activists have been targeted by the FBI as eco-terrorists and have even found themselves on government watchlists.
During the 2020 election cycle, the industry has given nearly $30million to mostly Republican candidates, party committees and other spending groups, according to money-tracking website Open Secrets. The ‘Trump Victory’ fundraising committee has received $2.9 million from the oil and gas industry. One example how this influence works in practice can be seen in the Trump administration’s recently announced plans to loosen oversight on methane emissions.
Economic and geopolitical concerns
Even if Democrats could get a ban through congress, would they really want to?
Fracking has had a transformative effect on the US economy and energy landscape. The US has become the world’s top producer of oil in recent years, ahead of Saudi Arabia and Russia. It is also a net exporter of oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG). Today, about half the US crude oil and two thirds of LNG come from fracking.
This has also made Washington inclined to use energy resources as a bargaining chip – ironically, something that the US has long accused the Saudis and Russia of doing. Ellen Wald, energy expert and senior fellow at the US-funded Atlantic Council think tank, recently promoted fracking in an op-ed for The Hill, frankly admitting that it was a “boon” for the US in terms of its “geopolitical leverage.” It is difficult to imagine that Democrats would give up that leverage so easily.
The US has attempted to strong-arm European countries into buying American LNG instead of the far cheaper Russian gas, even threatening to sanction the Nord Stream 2 pipeline currently under construction from Russia to Germany. Indeed, economist Jack Rasmus told RT that the US is increasingly concerned that Europe, particularly Germany, has become too reliant on Russian gas and is cognizant that this could reduce US influence in Europe.
In its efforts to promote US energy around the world, the Trump administration has even begun referring to its exports as “freedom gas” and “molecules of freedom” – a move which provoked much ridicule.
Planning or pandering?
It may provide a clue that, despite many references to “clean energy” and climate change, there is no mention of fracking anywhere on Warren’s website. Her plan for “100% clean energy,” released earlier this month, also includes no references to fracking. Progressive Democrats more sympathetic to Sanders are doubtful that Warren and Harris are genuine about the fracking ban, with some saying they only favor the ban due to public pressure.
It is simply a “fantasy” to believe that Democrats will ban fracking, Rasmus told RT, adding that both parties simply say “what they think their respective political bases want” to hear. Once in office, however, they have to make compromises.
All of this suggests that, even if a Democrat wins in 2020, the party’s anti-fracking dreams will not become reality any time soon.