Fracking up our future

Why we need a fracking ban, and why voters are being led astray

Hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, is the controversial yet widespread practice of extracting natural gas from shale fields with explosive chemicals. Contaminated water supplies, increased seismic activity and the long-term impacts of climate change are all tangible fears justifiably associated with fracking, and the practice has come under scrutiny from frontline communities, environmental activists and, recently, elected officials. 

Local and state-wide concerns over the practice have recently transformed it into a nationally-divisive issue of public policy that could have significant impacts in 2020’s election cycle. Moreover, the issue of fracking highlights just how this election cycle is one that could determine the future of climate action in the United States. 

Climate and energy policy is already revealing itself to be a platform-defining aspect of 2020, and voters seem to agree. The Iowa presidential caucuses exit polls found that besides healthcare, climate change was the most important issue to Democratic voters in the state, and the candidates vying for the Democratic nomination have realized this. Each of the eight major Democratic candidates still in the race has spoken out against fracking: four (Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Tom Steyer and Representative Tulsi Gabbard) have promised a nationwide-ban and four (Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Former Vice President Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg) plan to assess and phase out the practice in their terms. 

Sanders, while leading polls for the Democratic nomination for president, also personally introduced a ban on fracking to the Senate’ Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Jan. 28 alongside Senator Jeff Merkley (D) of Oregon. This bill, S. 3247, recently got a companion bill in the House of Representatives when Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D, NY-14) and Darren Soto (D, FL-9) introduced H.R. 5867 (the “Ban Fracking Act”) on Feb. 12. Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez have been on the campaign trail together since October, and Sanders was also recently endorsed by the Sunrise Movement, the country’s preeminent youth climate movement fighting for a Green New Deal. 

It is obvious that progressives, climate activists and a good portion of Democrats are leading the fight to phase out this dangerous practice in order to decarbonize our energy system, but others are dragging their feet. 

Not all Democrats (and certainly not all voters) are nearly as gung-ho about banning fracking this election cycle. 

In fact, some moderate Democrats worry a candidate with a full-on fracking ban will lose support of union Democrats working in the fracking industry in swing states like Pennsylvania (where Hilary Clinton lost the Electoral College to Donald Trump in 2016). A recent article and podcast from the New York Times’ “The Daily” cites various interviews with union leaders and 2016 Clinton supporters from Pennsylvania. In the podcast, the union workers say they’d consider staying home or voting for Trump should a fracking ban be attached to the ballot in November. Unfortunately, these voters are being fed the age-old lie that our economy will indefinitely suffer at the hands of environmental action, nor do they realize that a just transition is a crucial aspect of both pieces of legislation. 

Working to do everything in our power to decarbonize our economy and invest in renewables is crucial in 2020, both in the United States and globally, if we are serious about achieving climate justice. However, this current fracking debate feels all too familiar; as is often observed in the contextualization of environmental crises in policy, a false dichotomy of jobs versus the planet is once again being perpetuated. Powerful, wealthy companies (whose shareholders have pockets full of natural gas money) are arguing that banning fracking isn’t worth the potential “economic burdens” associated, and everyday employees are being understandably swayed at the idea of losing their jobs. 

Take for example an article published to CNN’s Business Perspectives just two weeks ago titled “Many of the Democrats want to ban fracking. That would trigger a global recession.” Sounds scary, right? That would probably be even scarier to read if you were an employee of the fracking industry working to support yourself or your family. 

At first glance, the article causes any reader to become concerned, citing memories and stories of how oil embargos over the years have caused global economic issues. But at a deeper look, this article and its credibility fall straight to the floor. The author, Mark P. Mills, is an energy-tech entrepreneur funded by the Manhattan Institute, a well-known anti-climate action think-tank funded by fossil fuel giants like Exxon-Mobil. Throughout his transparent op-ed, Mills does not mention climate change once, nor does Mills acknowledge the massive costs already facing communities across the globe in recovery from climate-charged natural disasters as a result of a failure to divest from fossil fuels. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that “the top 10 largest climate change-related disasters in 2018 alone cost at least $85 billion in damages,” according to a piece from the Union of Concerned Scientists. It is easy for wealthy think-tanks with ties to the fossil fuel industry to poke holes in the fight for climate justice, as observed in this individual piece, and it is even easier for them to try to scare voters away from substantive action on fracking. 

Perhaps even more dangerously, voters are being led astray from the reality that new legislation against fracking aligns their rights with the rights of our future generations, our frontline communities and our planet. Both Sanders’ and Ocasio-Cortez and Soto’s pieces of legislation include measures to ensure job security. According to a press release from Soto last week, the House resolution includes “a just transition for the working families in the fracking industry.” Soto’s statement goes even further, stating that “the bill directs the Department of Labor to partner with other federal agencies and stakeholders, including representatives of organized labor, to develop a plan to prioritize the placement of fossil fuel workers into good-paying jobs in the communities in which they live as the United States moves quickly to an energy system based on sustainable energy and energy efficiency.” Workers, ecosystems, entire communities and generations are at risk if we don’t divest from fossil fuels like natural gas, and it is their rights that this environmental justice legislation will aim to preserve. 

Altogether, the idea of a fracking ban may sound scary to many Americans who have been conditioned to prioritize short-term profits over the realities of environmental crises and long-term, community well being. However, a failure to ban fracking and reorganize our energy economy until it is too late is an even scarier reality for me and many other young people who understand the urgency of the climate crisis firsthand.

~James Duffy, Staff Writer~


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