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The vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Kamala Harris on Wednesday featured discussion of some of the most pressing issues facing the country: the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, President Trump’s record and the Supreme Court. One topic that got more attention than most pundits might have expected was fracking.
Pence raised the subject several times, making repeated false claims that Joe Biden supports an outright ban on fracking. Biden’s environmental platform calls for a gradual phasing out of fossil fuels by 2050, but does not include a fracking ban. “I am not banning fracking. No matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me,” Biden said recently.
Fracking — short for hydraulic fracturing — is a process in which water, sand and chemicals are pumped into the ground at high pressure to break up layers of rock that have trapped oil and natural gas. Over the past 15 years, fracking has become the nation’s dominant method for extracting oil and gas from the earth. The technique has also fueled an American energy boom that has turned the U.S. into the world’s top oil producer.
Politically, it makes sense for Trump and Pence to attempt to tie Biden to a fracking ban. Oil and gas drilling provides thousands of jobs in key swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. The issue also represents one of the starkest divisions within the Democratic Party. Biden and other moderates in the Democratic primary, like Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, proposed a gradual reduction in fracking over many years. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and others called for a nationwide ban. Harris previously agreed with them, but has deferred to Biden’s position on the issue since becoming his running mate.
Why there’s debate
Supporters of a fracking ban say the environmental costs of the practice outweigh any economic benefits. The process can release toxic chemicals into the air and contaminate drinking water supplies. Fracking sites can leak methane into the atmosphere, cause explosions and even create earthquakes. Scientists have found that living near fracking sites is associated with a variety of negative health impacts.
Critics of fracking take issue not only with the process, but also the result: fossil fuels that contribute to climate change. Natural gas is cleaner than coal, but the urgency of fighting climate change means anything other than zero-emissions energy sources should be phased out as quickly as possible, they argue.
Opponents of a fracking ban tend to fall into two camps: those who see fracking as a long-term energy solution for the country, and those who believe fracking can serve an important role in helping transition to greener energy sources. The first group argues that a fracking ban would cost thousands of working-class Americans their jobs and undermine the stability of the U.S. economy by making the country reliant on foreign sources of oil.
The second group believes that fracking can help solve a more pressing environmental goal: Eliminating coal power plants. Natural gas creates about half the greenhouse gas emissions as coal, and coal mining has an enormous impact on the environment. While it has its problems, fracking could be a “lesser evil” relative to coal until alternative sources like solar and wind develop enough to meet the country’s energy needs, they argue.
Fracking won’t be banned in the U.S. anytime soon, regardless of who wins the presidential election on Nov. 3. Biden’s plan only calls for a halt to new fracking permits on federally-owned land. Even if a future president did support a full nationwide ban on fracking, they would be unable to enact one without an act of Congress. They could issue a series of regulations that made fracking less profitable, but that strategy would likely face major legal challenges.
The fracking process is too harmful
“Alongside the danger of spills and explosions, the health hazards of fracking include air pollution from methane and ozone, water contamination from heavy metals, and the longer-term effects of climate change, with these impacts often hitting low-income and nonwhite communities the hardest.” — Joseph Winters, Grist
Curbing climate change means taking drastic steps to cut out fossil fuels
“We are on track to leave to future generations a world that is far worse than the one we inherited. If we are to hope for a better outcome, we must stop producing greenhouse gases. Climate scientists are urging us to leave all fossil fuels in the ground so that they’ll never be burned. That includes natural gas, which needs to stay there so it doesn’t leak either.” — Environmentalist Karen Feridun, Philadelphia Inquirer
Any economic harm caused by a ban can be easily fixed
“Any immediate economic repercussions to the economy can be offset if oil-and-gas companies are made to pay their fair share and if we overcome political opposition from the fossil-fuel lobby and implement well-designed policies.” — Climate Law Institute director Kassie Siegel to Wall Street Journal
Fossil fuels are already on their way out. A fracking ban would accelerate the transition.
“The reality is that innovation has been rapidly driving down the price of renewables — at this point. ... So we’re almost there, and it seems certain that the cleverness of American business can get us the rest of the way to the point where the transition is seamless. To believe the alarmists is to not believe in the ability of the market to innovate to a stable climate.” — Andrew E. Dessler, Houston Chronicle
We don’t have time to allow market forces to gradually end fracking
“When it comes to limiting climate change, a key factor is time. Methane leaked from gas wells can stay in the atmosphere for a decade. Carbon dioxide from burning it can linger for a century. So it is imperative to ramp down greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. Yet every new natural gas power plant represents a decades-long commitment to continue using the fuel.” — Umair Irfan, Vox
Banning fracking would hurt U.S. national security
“The shale revolution has really been a big contribution to U.S. energy security, national security, our position in the world. Were that to be demolished … that would weaken the position of the U.S. in the world.” — Energy and geopolitics researcher Daniel Yergin to Washington Post
The economy would suffer if fracking were banned
“Any kind of ban on fracking would cause severe damage to our stressed economy and would result in negative environmental impacts.” — Gary Wolfram, Detroit News
Alternative energy sources aren’t ready
“Until solar and wind power take more of the energy load, I like not paying an arm and a leg to heat my house.” — Brian O’Neill, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Energy prices would go way up
“Basic economics tells us what happens to the price of something when the demand stays constant and the supply is drastically cut. Prices would skyrocket for everything requiring energy to produce – meaning everything we buy, not just energy itself.” — Daniel Turner, Fox News
Fracking will help eliminate coal power and serve as a bridge to greener energy
“Natural gas is the best option to replace coal power generation quickly and transition to cleaner emissions. The best way to put pressure on utilities to make that transition is to keep pushing the price of natural gas lower so that coal cannot compete.” — Ellen R. Wald, The Hill
The fracking industry will die off on its own in time
“What makes the calls for a total ban especially foolish is that the industry is in big trouble on its own accord.” — Froma Harrop, CNN
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