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The Heat 2020

How a New White House Could End Fracking

Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden have big climate goals. Here’s how they can reach them.

Judith Lewis Mernit

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Pump jacks at the Monterey Shale formation near Lost Hills, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Post-Super Tuesday in 2016, Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders faced off for a sixth time, in Flint, Michigan. Near the end, CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked the candidates where each of them stood on the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

Clinton gave a characteristically circumspect answer, knowing that fracking — cracking open rock with a high-pressure slurry of chemicals, water and sand — had lifted some Northeastern states’ economies out of the gutter. “I don’t support it when any locality or any state is against it,” she said.

“My answer is a lot shorter,” Sanders said. “No, I do not support fracking.”


“The Heat 2020” explores the nexus of climate change and politics in the current election year. It will cut through the sound bites and press releases to chronicle this fateful year for our environment and country. 


 

The exchange amplified a perennial rift between progressives and moderates on climate policy: Is it better to aim high and risk failure? Or to propose only what you’re certain you can do?


Banning fracking could cost 142,000 jobs in New Mexico alone.


Today the Sanders-Clinton battles over protecting the environment can seem quaint. Sanders no longer pushes for a carbon tax; natural gas is no longer a credible “bridge fuel,” as Clinton had insisted. But the issue of what to do about fracking still conspicuously separates Sanders from his more moderate rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Sanders continues to call for a ban on the notoriously polluting technology. Methane, the chief component of natural gas, is devastating for the climate, and it leaks in large amounts from fracking sites. Biden has called only for better regulation.


“It isn’t about saying no to something — it’s about saying yes to other things.”


What Biden wants could be done immediately by reversing the Trump administration’s push to gut existing methane leakage regulations from new oil and gas facilities. What Sanders proposes would mean untangling “a Rubik’s cube of laws,” says Patrick Parenteau, a professor of environmental and natural resource law at Vermont Law School.

It’s not that the president lacks authority to end new leases for resource extraction. But that executive authority applies only to federal land. In the Northeast, “a lot of fracking is occurring on private land,” Parenteau says. For a president to prohibit it would mean interfering with the private property rights of farmers and other landowners who profit from allowing energy companies to drill on their land. The conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court would not approve.


The oil and gas industry’s plans to frack New York State were defeated by a long grassroots campaign.


And then, of course, there are jobs to consider: Banning fracking on any kind of land would cost 142,000 of them in New Mexico alone, claims the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute. It would also drastically reduce the state’s burden on the climate: New Mexico’s per-capita greenhouse-gas emissions are 70 percent higher than the national average, says an official state study. Twenty-four percent of those emissions come from oil and gas production.

Still, both of the state’s Democratic Senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, back the drillers.

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That doesn’t mean fracking can’t be stopped. In November California’s Governor Gavin Newsom called at least a temporary halt to new permits for high-pressure steam injection, the state’s most common (and dangerous) method of extracting stuck oil. New York’s Andrew Cuomo had banned hydraulic fracturing in his state in 2014 due to health impacts. This year he introduced legislation to keep New York fracking-free for good.

But Cuomo didn’t get there on his own, says Lindsay Speer, an environmental consultant who helped defeat the oil and gas industry’s plans to frack New York. The law was instead the culmination of a long grassroots campaign. “It was rural-led,” she says. “It was the farmer out in the middle of nowhere saying, ‘What the heck is this?’ It was neighbors getting together to listen to people from northern Pennsylvania raising the alarm and saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t your grandfather’s gas. It’s a massive industrial operation and it’s changing not just the landscape but our water quality.’”

Local concerned lawyers helped people write fracking bans into their municipal laws; the nonprofit Earthjustice helped defend them in court. Eventually there were so many ordinances that the governor’s edict was inevitable.

At no point was the movement partisan. Republicans – of which New York State has many – were as concerned about their health as Democrats were. “Fracking is an issue that unites conservative and liberal, rural and urban,” Speer says. “It creates unlikely allies.”

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Speer and other environmental advocates in New York are now focusing their effort on how to reduce the state’s fossil-fuel consumption, in part by transitioning oil-and-gas-heated homes to electrical heat pumps that draw warmth from the ground. Persuading people isn’t hard: The new heating systems are more efficient, cost less to operate and eliminate a dangerous source of combustion from people’s homes.

“It isn’t about saying no to something,” Speer says. “It’s about saying yes to other things.”

That principle can also apply to national leadership. If Biden can’t get a climate bill through Congress, Parenteau says, he can at least ramp up clean energy, move federal agencies to invest in wind and solar and advance measures to green-up the military.

And while Sanders might have objected to Trump declaring a national emergency for his border wall, he would be right to deploy that same executive power to save humanity.

“The climate emergency really is an emergency,” Parenteau says. “If you think we have to go slow, then what you’re saying is ‘We’d rather deal with the intensifying damage that climate change is causing year to year.’ There’s no choice without serious consequence.”


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