Editor’s note: Opinions expressed by the author are his own.
“The environmental case against fracking crumbled years ago. The economic case for it is unassailable. So why are leading presidential candidates intent on shutting down one of the most beneficial U.S. innovations of the modern era?”
Thank you, Jeff Jacoby, columnist at The Boston Globe, for your excellent post on Sept. 13. We’ve never met, and I don’t know you. But you have certainly made my day as well as others deeply concerned about the anti-fossil fuel discourse that is roiling this country.
Let me take you back to Sept. 12, the day the anti-fracking stalwarts came to Houston to tell us that mankind can and must live without petroleum. As the 10 leading Democratic presidential candidates squared off at Texas Southern University, 22 activists from Greenpeace attacked a busy local bridge, tied themselves to supports, blocked thousands of motorists trying to get to work, closed off the Houston Ship Channel, and forced deputies to risk their lives by rappelling from the bridge to arrest the trespassers who face hefty fines and two years in jail.
I watched most of the three-hour debate in which climate change naturally arose. Fact is, they’ve stated their positions often enough—particularly in the earlier CNN Climate town halls—that the issue didn’t dominate the debate. They all agreed in varying degrees for the perceived need to move away from petroleum: former vice president Joe Biden, Texans Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro taking somewhat moderate positions; progressive Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris vowing to shut down the industry overnight and spend trillions to save the planet from extinction.
I am riled by a mix of emotions when I hear the outlandish responses to climate change. Anger, that they would foolishly destroy the global economy; frustration, that these people want the most important job in the world; laughter, that anyone takes them seriously; and lastly, fear, that the most strident of them might actually have an opportunity to carry out that insanity.
To relieve my angst, I researched into the minds of more rational thinkers. Author and retired New York City attorney Francis Menton begins in manhattancontrarian.com with a blog entitled “Hey Democratic Candidates: Are You Going to Ban All Fossil Fuels?”
“The CNN Climate Town Hall was just the beginning. With each passing day it seems that there is a louder and louder chorus of voices on the left demanding that all candidates get in line with a total war against all fossil fuels. After all, the eradication of these evil fuels is the only way to save humanity from climate apocalypse,” Menton writes.
On Sept. 6 Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted, “On my first day as president, I will sign an executive order that puts a total moratorium on all new fossil fuel leases for drilling offshore and on public lands. And I will ban fracking - everywhere.”
When she was asked, Kamala Harris nodded and replied, “There’s no question that I’m in favor of banning fracking, so yes.”
Said Menton: “Given that fracking accounts for over half of U.S. fossil fuel production—and nearly all new production—that leaves very little daylight between Warren and an outright fossil fuel ban.”
“So far,” he continued, “I haven’t seen a single one of the candidates address things like, how is an airplane going to work in this brave new world? How are you going to heat your house? How much is your electricity going to cost? How is farm equipment going to run?”
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Sept. 4 called for a “full fracking ban on public and private lands” but takes his stridency even further. “Fossil fuel executives should be criminally prosecuted for the destruction they have knowingly caused,” he tweeted.
Sanders also advocates divesting federal pensions from fossil fuels, preferably into renewables: “Federal employees’ pensions are currently invested in fossil fuels. That puts their pensions at risk. The federal government must protect and grow those pension funds by instead investing in the clean energy economy.”
In her piece in Forbes, “Bernie Sanders’ Green Energy Dystopian Fantasy,” energy historian Ellen R. Wald almost seemed amused by Sanders’ grand plan. “Sanders’ proposals are not serious. Or at least we have to hope they are not, because if these proposals came to be implemented, we would face a dystopia fit for a teenage fantasy novel.”
Sanders’ plan includes:
- $16.3 trillion designated over the next decade to transitioning the United States to only electricity generated from renewable energies;
- Gas-powered engines would be phased out; and,
- Create 20 million jobs and offer assistance to displaced fossil fuel workers, which would “end unemployment.”
If Sanders truly wants renewable-based energy, he would have to get rid of all nuclear power, which supplies about 20% of U.S. electricity generation. “There is no good way to increase hydropower and wind power (and solar power) enough to make up for the loss of fossil fuels and nuclear,” Wald says.
According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2018, 35% of U.S. electricity came from natural gas, only 27% from coal. “No one would have thought those percentages were possible in 2000, when half of the nation’s electricity was generated by coal-fired plants and less than one-sixth came from natural gas. The sweeping shift to gas-fueled plants has led to a dramatic reduction in America’s greenhouse gas emissions” Jacoby wrote.
“For anyone who worries about climate change and is intent on carbon reduction, all this should be a cause for rejoicing. Fracking, which has made it possible, should be extolled as a boon to environmental progress,’’ Jacoby asserted.
The suggestion of criminal prosecution leaves writer William Allison appalled, as he writes in EnergyinDepth, a project of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) “Bernie Sanders Wants to Prosecute Oil and Natural Gas Companies but Doesn’t Know What Laws They Violated.
“Providing affordable, reliable energy isn’t a crime anywhere, least of all in the United States. But because Sanders personally doesn’t like what these companies do, he believes they should be taken to court. To achieve this, Sanders would direct the U.S. Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission to pursue criminal and civil charges.
“This sets a dangerous precedent of the president directing independent law enforcement organizations that are traditionally outside the scope of partisan politics to target companies based on the personal preferences of elected leaders. That’s not how democracy works. And that’s not how our justice system works.”
Look To California
Chemical engineer and author Robert Rapier also writes in Forbes that “A Fracking Ban Will Never Happen,” and suggests studying the California situation where gasoline prices remain the highest in the nation.
“Proponents of a ban envision modest and controlled production declines, offset by other policies that would reduce oil demand. In other words, they don’t believe a ban would lead to a steady increase in oil imports. California and Alaska have missed out on the fracking-enabled shale oil boom. Although California has the nation’s most aggressive policies to reduce oil demand, that demand hasn’t gone down appreciably. As a result, California’s dependence on foreign oil has skyrocketed as its main sources of domestic production have declined.”
Rapier warns cutting off natural gas production would turn exports into imports. “Because global natural gas demand is growing, countries with LNG needs would in many cases turn to countries with fewer environmental protections than the U.S. You may rightfully be concerned about some methane leakage from U.S. wells, but many countries have a fraction of the environmental controls we have in the U.S.”
The Crucial Keystone State
How would voters respond in Pennsylvania, where the shale natural gas boom has created tens of thousands of jobs and added hundreds of millions of dollars to the state’s long-stagnant economy? Donald Trump eked out a win in 2016 that helped him secure office. Writer Scott Waldman attempts to answer “Can Democrats Ban Fracking and Win PA?” in E&E News.
“The 2020 election will likely come down to just a few states, including one that boasts a robust hydraulic fracturing industry unparalleled virtually anywhere else in the country,” he wrote. “Democrats need to win the key swing state of Pennsylvania if they are to defeat President Trump. There is an appetite for climate policy among Democrats in the current election cycle unlike any seen in recent history.”
"The regions where Trump won are the regions where fracking takes place, so if the Democrats are going to try to make inroads with that group of voters, they're going to have to be cautious with how they move on that front," added Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll, in the same article
As a result, several candidates hope to appease both sides. They say they would start by halting fracking on public lands and transition the nation away from fossil fuels in order to eventually establish a ban. Biden hails from Scranton, Pa., and has strong support in the Keystone State. He admits it would be impossible for a Democratic candidate to ban fracking, but he pledges not to allow any new wells.
“I don't think we'd get it done, in terms of getting the votes to get it done, to say all fracking that's going on now ends unless you can show there's some physical security need or worried about explosions, et cetera, which is a legitimate thing to worry about. But I would not allow any more,"he is quoted as saying.
Power Of The Presidency, Or Not?
Does a president actually have the power to ban fracking? CNN reporter Holmes Lybrand says that beyond the market implications such a move would cause, obvious political and legal questions arise, chief among them whether the president has authority to ban fracking.
“Without an act of Congress, the president could not issue an outright ban on fracking across the U.S. There are, however, a number of regulatory and executive actions an administration could take to prevent or shrink the use of fracking technology, particularly on federal land. The problem is that most fracking takes place on private land, and any attempts to limit it would likely face legal challenges,” he said.
Warren’s and Sanders’ campaigns suggest they would try to build on existing rules and regulations as well as use executive authorities to regulate contaminants to the air and water as a result of fracking and other natural gas operations. In both cases, they could be facing a Republican-controlled Senate as well as court challenges that have often thwarted similar actions, Lybrand said.
Jacoby offers some final words of advice to the candidates: “Like every technology or industrial process, it (fracking) comes with costs as well as benefits. But that only means it should be carefully supervised and regulated, not banned outright. As it is, fracking is regulated by the states, though there are environmentalists who argue for stricter supervision. That’s position Warren/Sanders/Harris could adopt if their real interest was to craft a better energy policy. Their demand for a total end to fracking, however, is mere ideological posturing, unsupported by science.”
"The problem that the progressives who want to eliminate it [fracking] have is that it's very important to the economy of some states."—Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall field poll.
“We do not know, precisely, what the most efficient path looks like. We are also certain that Mr. Sanders does not.” —The Washington Post Editorial Board
“Serious solutions are needed to keep the American economy strong while making progress to protect the environment. It’s clear that Sanders does not offer that. Instead he seems intent on releasing unrealistic proposals, making up the law as he goes along, to prosecute those he doesn’t like. That’s a dangerous threat to the American economy and our democratic and judicial systems.” —William Allison
“Those calling for an immediate ban are either pandering, or they are naive. In reality, an immediate ban wouldn’t happen, because a president would never get the political support to enact such a national ban. Local bans will sometimes win support, but there will never be a nationwide ban. These candidates probably know this — and some may even be aware of the consequences—in which case they are simply pandering to voters. But in the process, they risk losing moderate voters who may have otherwise voted for them.”—Robert Rapier
“In order to prevent fracking on U.S. private lands, a Warren or Sanders administration would likely have to work through regulatory powers which would ultimately face a myriad of legal challenges. Or they could try their luck in working with Congress to pass new laws on fracking. Any federal regulations, however, would likely be undone by a future administration who supports or is not as hostile toward fracking.”—Holmes Lybrand
“Yes, we could consider Sanders’ plan. But the ‘we’ would live in darkness. Most of us would never travel. We would be hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Most of us would not have access to electronics. Our landscapes would be filled with solar panels and windmills that kill birds. Our rivers would all be dammed. And many of us would starve.” —Ellen Wald
“It’s all just fairy dust. When did it become possible – indeed, not just possible, but required – to be so fundamentally unserious while running for president of the United States?”—Francis Menton
“A vow to ‘ban fracking—everywhere’ may excite progressive extremists who hate the fossil fuel industry and all its works. But it’s the very opposite of a serious proposal, and the mark of a candidate unsuited for the White House.”—Jeff Jacoby
“Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our carbon emissions more than any other nation on Earth.”—President Barack Obama, 2014 State of the Union Address