Though the Democratic primary has just begun, one warning has been pushed in the press loud and clear for months already: Democrats who support a ban on oil and gas fracking would effectively cede the election to Donald Trump.
Mounting evidence of the harms of fracking make a comprehensive ban the only responsible course of action.
This new conventional wisdom—that swing state voters would vote to protect the interest of fossil fuel polluters over the health and safety of their communities—is endlessly repeated in campaign coverage, and promoted by the Trump administration. But the facts don’t back it up. Meanwhile, the mounting evidence of the harms of fracking make a comprehensive ban the only responsible course of action.
This media message has some pretty clear targets. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have both stated their support for a national ban, and Senator Sanders took it one step further by recently introducing a bill that would ban the dangerous drilling practice.
Calling for a ban on fracking makes sense, for any number of reasons. Drilling causes rampant air and water pollution, and an ever-growing list of public health problems. Communities in southwestern Pennsylvania are demanding to know if fracking is linked to an outbreak of rare childhood cancers. And we have barely begun cataloguing the dangers associated with the enormous amount of radioactive waste created by drilling, as documented recently in an explosive investigation by Justin Noble in Rolling Stone.
And then there are risks to the climate. While the industry and media promoted gas drilling as a responsible ‘bridge fuel’ to a cleaner tomorrow, it has only deepened our dependence on dirty fossil fuels. As our new Food & Water Watch report shows, once you properly account for the emissions of carbon dioxide and methane, the supposed advantages of switching to gas-fired power plants from coal are far less impressive than advertised.
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With methane leaking at every stage of the process, there is simply no way to make fracking safe. So instead of waiting for the industry to live up to its own marketing hype, Senator Sanders has teamed up with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to deliver comprehensive legislation that would ban fracking—and much more. In addition to phasing out drilling by 2025 and revoking permits for wells that are close to schools and homes, it would also prohibit new fossil fuel infrastructure projects like pipelines and compressor stations. And the ban would extend to export terminals that are being planned to ship fracked gas around the world.
A call to ban fracking is bound to energize climate activists and progressive voters, who see it as the kind of bold action necessary to confront the climate crisis. But to hear the political pundits tell it, it is the path to electoral disaster. Countless news stories confidently proclaim that it would be impossible to win a state like Pennsylvania—which has over 10,000 unconventional wells—while calling for a ban on fracking.
But actual voters in Pennsylvania don’t appear to agree with the pundits. A new Franklin & Marshall poll found that 49 percent of Pennsylvanians would support a ban, while just 38 percent opposed the idea. And a growing percentage of Pennsylvanians feel like the environmental costs of fracking outweigh the supposed economic benefits. In another key swing state—Florida—a survey last year found that 61% of Democrats support a fracking ban, and so do a third of Trump supporters.
Evidence of this shift runs deeper than opinion polls, too. A series of local elections in Pennsylvania have shown that voters are not shunning candidates who campaign against fracking wells and fossil fuel pipelines; they are putting them in office.
The pundits were wrong to promote fracking as a ‘bridge fuel’ to clean energy, and they’re wrong to dismiss a ban on fracking as an election year disaster. Instead of listening to them, pay attention to these three simple truths: Democratic and independent voters want to stop fracking; climate policy is increasingly important to 2020 voters; fracking is a disaster for the climate. Put that all together and you come to the conclusion that banning fracking is not only necessary—it’s smart politics.