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What 2020 Politicians and Pundits Get Wrong About Fracking

Too many Democrats continue to fundamentally misunderstand the politics of fracking as much as they misunderstand the necessity of banning fracking to stop the worsening effects of climate chaos.

"The reality is that neither candidate nor their respective parties support a ban on fracking, even though that position happens to be supported by rank and file Democrats," writes Jones. (Photo: Food & Water Watch/Flickr/cc)

"The reality is that neither candidate nor their respective parties support a ban on fracking, even though that position happens to be supported by rank and file Democrats," writes Jones. (Photo: Food & Water Watch/Flickr/cc)

The recent charges and counter charges in the presidential campaign around fracking might be a little confusing: Donald Trump and his allies eagerly claim that Joe Biden will ban fracking, while Biden is just as eager to point out that this is a lie—because it is. 

While it’s not exactly news that Trump isn’t telling the truth about something, this situation is more complicated. Trump is pushing a misleading narrative about jobs, fracking and Pennsylvania that is a staple of media coverage, which asserts that Democrats who talk about banning fracking will wind up losing. None of this is correct, and the latest frustrating back-and-forth highlights that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats understand the politics of fracking in states like Pennsylvania. All the while, the professional political pundit class passes off misleading conventional wisdom as if it were fact, bolstering industry-friendly GOP talking points in the process.

The reality is that neither candidate nor their respective parties support a ban on fracking, even though that position happens to be supported by rank and file Democrats. Whether the Democrats' reluctance to follow their base has more to do with pressure from trade unions or the influence of former Obama administration energy policy wonks is hard to say. But whatever the reason, Democratic Party leadership fundamentally misunderstands the politics of fracking as much as it misunderstands the necessity of banning fracking to stop the worsening effects of climate chaos.

"The reality is that neither candidate nor their respective parties support a ban on fracking, even though that position happens to be supported by rank and file Democrats."

The pro-fracking conventional wisdom tells us that support for a fracking ban is a fringe position, especially in crucial states like Pennsylvania. Actual voters don't agree with the pundits. In January, a poll by Franklin & Marshall of registered Pennsylvania voters found 48% actually support a ban on fracking, while 39% opposed it. In August, a CBS/YouGov poll found that a slight majority of Pennsylvania voters (52 to 48 percent) oppose fracking. And, most recently, new polling released by Climate Power 2020 shows that Pennsylvania voters favor bold climate action, have negative views of the fracking industry, and support a range of policies to limit drilling.

Don't just take it from the polls, though; if you look at election results, the real world politics of fracking in Pennsylvania become clear: Anti-fracking Democrats are winning on the ground. In 2018, anti-fracking candidates Summer Lee, Sara Innamorato and Elizabeth Fiedler won state legislative races, and a leader in the movement against the Mariner East pipeline, Danielle Friel Otten, flipped a key Republican-held state legislative district. Anti-fracking candidates kept on winning in local races in 2019 in the Pittsburgh suburbs too. 

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The industry and pro-fracking Democrats sought to stymie this movement in the 2020 primaries. Fossil fuel-linked groups spent an astonishing sum to unseat Friel Otten, while state party bosses actually groomed a pro-fracking Democrat to challenge the incumbent Lee. If the pundits were right, these anti-fracking Democrats would have been trounced. The strategy was a colossal failure; both candidates cruised to victory. 

Drilling backers insist employment should be the only metric considered for fracking’s impact. Thus, the core of Trump's fracking blitz is about protecting jobs. One widely aired pro-Trump Super PAC television ad makes the ludicrous claim that a fracking ban would eliminate 600,000 jobs in Pennsylvania. Back in reality, the actual number of Pennsylvania fracking jobs was about 25,000, and it’s substantially less than that now. The fracking industry's financial meltdown has already cost thousands of Pennsylvanians their jobs. One recent study found that almost 9,000 fossil fuel jobs in Pennsylvania were lost just between March and July—a 26 percent decline. At that rate, Trump is protecting fracking jobs the same way he "saved" workers in the coal industry. But for some reason, this reality is not allowed to interfere with this totally disingenuous jobs narrative. 

Of course, the politics of fracking aren't the most important reason to ban drilling. Fracking has been disastrous for the communities bearing the public health consequences: Air pollution and water contamination, along with an array of possible or probable health effects. Fracking also wastes more water than previously thought: A Duke University team found that water use per well had increased dramatically—as much as 770 percent—and the amount of toxic wastewater produced by drilling was also on the rise. A recent blockbuster report by Justin Noble in Rolling Stone documented the serious health threats posed by that radioactive drilling waste, especially in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

And we know that fracking is driving climate change, releasing tons of methane, the powerful greenhouse gas that traps 86 times more heat than carbon dioxide over a twenty year period. As we continue to see the effects of climate chaos—from the increasingly intense wildfires in California, Australia, and Brazil; to increasingly frequent and violent tropical storms—we know we must stop extracting, processing, and burning fossil fuels. Our ability to hand down a habitable planet to future generations depends on it. 

These are the realities that are shifting the politics of fracking. As hundreds of organizations and thousands of activists spread the word about the negative effects of drilling, and as grassroots candidates driven by their desire to stop fracking win races that they aren't "supposed" to win, the reality on the ground has clearly overtaken armchair punditry. While we may have one more national campaign in which neither party really understands this truth, the politics of fracking continue to shift away from the fossil fuel industry and their cronies in both parties, and towards the necessity of ending this practice once and for all.

Mitch Jones

Mitch Jones

Mitch Jones is the Policy Director at Food & Water Action.

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