Fracking Fights Rankle New York Primary
Hillary Clinton leads recent polls for New York’s upcoming Democratic presidential primary, but a major battle over fracking complicates her path to victory.
New York is the place where opposition to the use of advanced technologies such as hydraulic fracturing to extract previously inaccessible oil and gas resources from shale formations has been particularly vociferous and, as fate would have it, the place where the vote on April 19 will provide considerable momentum to either Clinton or Bernie Sanders in their push for their party’s nomination.
New York, unlike most states around the country, has since 2014 banned fracking within its borders, opting to forego the private and public of revenues such mining might provide in return for greater protection against threats to its natural environment. Scientists at Cornell University, located in the epicenter of state’s resistance to fracking, had previously produced a much cited 2011 study arguing that fracking natural gas was no better than coal for protecting the climate from human-generated greenhouse gases. The article became a Bible of sorts to environmental activists all over the country seeking to slow climate change and at the same time halt fracking.
Within months, others scientists at Cornell issued a strong critique, arguing that the emphasis on a 20-year timeframe in the earlier study was inappropriate, and the greater efficiency of natural gas combustion to generate electricity needed to be taken into account, as did the actual and potential capture of methane in gas extraction. In the aftermath, most energy experts continue to believe that natural gas has a much more benign impact on global warming than coal and that increased U.S. gas production from fracking is, on balance, helpful in the mid-term for reducing the emissions of climate-changing gases.
Anti-fracking activists have found a soul mate in Sanders. The Senator from Vermont wants to stop fracking of oil and gas on private and private lands – as well as phase out nuclear power and end all new leasing for oil production in offshore waters, including the Gulf of Mexico. This is a recipe for greatly increasing American dependence on foreign oil, enhancing the influence of Russia and OPEC, slowing the substitution of cleaner natural gas for coal, and offshoring American jobs. (The corporations he attacks relentlessly do employ a lot of people.)
Contrary to his announced goals, his proposals could well hamper efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Besides opposing the development of natural gas and nuclear energy, his positions make it more difficult to forge a national consensus on how to deal more effectively with climate change. They support the argument of skeptics that climate protection measures inevitably damage the economy – though strong economic growth and reduced emissions are compatible when the most effective strategies are adopted. If the college students in the Sanders revolution don’t know this, he should.
At the beginning of the campaign season, Secretary Clinton staked out a middle ground between allowing unfettered fracking anywhere and stopping fracking everywhere. She supported a situation in which some states chose to allow fracking, while others blocked it, with the federal government focusing primarily on issues like methane flaring and leakage that had implications for climate change.
Clinton’s position was harder to explain in rapid-fire debate formats than the simplistic “fer and agin” positions of other candidates. Under pressure from an anti-fracking questioner in Michigan, she seemed to move closer to the Sanders’ position. Still, she has the most balanced stance on the issue and the one closest to President Obama’s. Many voters, though, don’t appear ready to deal with the subtleties of the problem. (Climate change is by far the most complicated environmental issue ever.)
In a country as large as the United States, allowing some state discretion in fracking makes sense, from both a political and policy perspective. Some drilling advocates have argued we need to drill everywhere it is geologically feasible. But drilling is limited by the amount of investment capital available, and allowing more drilling in, say, California or New York – where revenues gained from drilling would likely result in the loss of revenues from tourism – wouldn’t necessarily increase national production. By the same token, we can’t frack nowhere, unless we want to impede the displacement of coal-based electricity and foreign oil.
States that have allowed fracking have a mixed record. North Dakota and Oklahoma have been particularly lax in their regulation, while Texas maintains high standards. Ohio and Pennsylvania, not having the experience and infrastructure of Texas, have worked hard to learn as they progress in regulating an emerging industry. As long as the federal government attends to issues with climate implications, the people of Oklahoma can continue to elect officials who deny the documented association of the disposal of fracked wastewater there with low-level earthquakes (until recently the state’s position) without federal interference, since the benefits and damages of fracking are collocated.
Secretary Clinton’s sound bite answer on fracking could be that she respects the decision of New York to ban it, while supporting the positions of Ohio and Pennsylvania allowing it. A policy paper could elaborate at greater length on the opportunities and challenges of fracking and debunk the extreme positions of her opponents in both parties. (Being on the defensive has its liabilities in a hard-fought campaign.)
Many “fractivists” in New York and elsewhere will not be satisfied with anything less than a Sanders-like “no new drilling in America” position. A more balanced approach, however, better suits a national leader and will likely produce greater actual reductions in emissions. Some voters might even respect the ability of a candidate to discuss the issue in some depth.
Nuance on energy policy may be a rare commodity in the current contest to win the presidency, but it’s an important attribute for those who aspire to faithfully execute the duties of the office.