In-Depth: Sponsoring Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced this bill to phase out fracking nationwide:
“We must realize that workers in the fracking fields are not the enemy, coal miners are not the enemy, and oil rig workers are not the enemy. Climate change is the enemy. As we transition to 100% renewable energy, we must come together to ensure a just transition for all fossil fuel workers. Fracking is a danger to our water supply. It’s a danger to the air we breathe, it has resulted in more earthquakes, and it’s highly explosive. To top it all off, it’s contributing to climate change. If we are serious about clean air and drinking water, if we are serious about combating climate change, the only safe and sane way to move forward is to ban fracking nationwide.”
Original cosponsor Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) adds that fracking jeopardizes communities’ health:
“Fracking has sacrificed the health of communities across America and led to massive releases of potent greenhouse gas pollution. From the formation of dangerous cancer clusters, to poisoned well water and earthquakes, to methane leaks big enough to be seen from outer space, fracking poses unacceptable risks to our health while accelerating climate chaos. Congress needs to stand up for the health of families, and pave the way to a sustainable future for our children and our children’s children by banning this dangerous practice.”
House sponsor Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) adds:
“The science is clear: fracking is a leading contributor to our climate emergency. It is destroying our land. It is destroying our water and it is wreaking havoc on our communities' health. We must do our job to protect our future from the harms caused by the fracking industry and its methane emissions. I am proud to introduce the Fracking Ban Act with Senator Sanders, Senator Merkley, and Congressman Soto to immediately ban hydraulic fracking on and off shore.”
Some centrist Democrats, who have historically seen fracked gas as a cheap, cleaner-burning “bridge fuel” to replace coal, advocate a more moderate approach to limiting fossil fuel use. Sen. Tom Carper’s (D-DE) Clean Economy Act of 2020, which would require federal regulators to set goals for reaching “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. by 2050, is emblematic of this centrist approach (net zero by 2050 is the international goal set by the Paris climate agreement and is what scientists say is needed to avert climate change’s worst impacts).
However, some environmentalists argue that legislation like Sen. Carper’s doesn’t go far enough toward ending fossil fuel reliance. Food & Water Watch policy director Mitch Jones criticizes the Carper bill for failing to curb the worsening effects of climate change, allowing continued fossil fuel use alongside carbon capture technology and leaving open the possibility of cap-and-trade and other “market schemes” to trade pollution credits in lieu of actually reducing pollution. He adds that this legislation, by comparison, is the “gold standard” for limiting fossil fuel production and use:
“In terms of specifically fighting against the supply side of fossil fuels and fighting against the continuation of extracting and burning fossil fuels, the Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez bills are the gold standards in this Congress.”
The American Petroleum Institute (API) opposes this legislation, which it argues would hurt energy industry workers. Its spokeswoman, Bethany Aronhalt, told The Hill:
“Banning a safe, successful method of developing energy would erase a generation of American energy progress and in the process destroy millions of U.S. jobs, spike household energy costs and hurt farmers and manufacturers.”
Texas Oil and Natural Gas Association president Todd Staples adds that this legislation would “actually decimate millions of lives across America [a]nd jeopardize the ability to get much needed power to our hospitals, to our homes, to our schools.”
Mark McCord, director of FracDallas, says oil and gas industry claims that a fracking ban would cost jobs don’t match the reality, as “the industry is hemorrhaging jobs for the last four years anyhow.” However, McCord also questions this bill’s potential impact. He observes that while it’s possible for a president to stop fracking on federal land, they couldn’t stop it on state or private land.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce disagrees with McCord’s assessment of the job losses that would be associated with a fracking ban. According to a study commissioned by the Chamber, a fracking ban would cost 19 million jobs across the U.S. in its first five or so years.
LawIQ’s Gary Kruse says this bill wouldn’t stand up to legal scrutiny because it takes control away from the states on a range of decisions, undoes a host of federal statutes and makes decisions that should be left up to agencies for them. He concludes:
“The chance of this statute ever being sustained on appeal is zero. There are all sorts of due process issues with pre-determining an outcome without any ability to defend your particular case."
There may also be political considerations in play, as well. Some Democrats worry that a fracking ban policy could push Pennsylvania — a key battleground state — toward President Donald Trump in November. In a New York Times interview, Pennsylvania lieutenant governor John Fetterman explained, “In Pennsylvania, you're talking hundreds of thousands of related jobs that would be — they would be unemployed overnight. Pennsylvania is a margin play. And an outright ban on fracking isn't a margin play."
Rep. Conor Lamb’s (D-PA) opposition to this legislation illustrates Pennsylvania Democrats’ concerns with this legislation. In a February 14 letter, Rep. Lamb called this bill and its House companion legislation “only designed to make headlines” and score political points with certain voters. He urged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to reject this bill and instead reiterate Democrats’ support for natural gas and the jobs it supports across the U.S. and particularly in his home district of western Pennsylvania. In his letter, Rep. Lamb insisted that this legislation would “eliminate thousands of jobs in my state and likely millions across the country. It would also remove from our energy grid the source of power that has been most responsible for reducing carbon emissions in our country.”
Some argue that fracking is nowhere near as dangerous as its opponents claim. While testifying in favor of allowing states to regulate fracking in 2013, then-Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper testified to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that he drank a glass of fracking fluid produced by oilfield services giant Halliburton. Hickenlooper told the committee, “You can drink [fracking fluid]. We did drink it around the table, almost ritual-like, in a funny way. It was a demonstration. … [Halliburton has] invested millions of dollars in what is a benign fluid in every sense.” According to both Halliburton and Hickenlooper, the company’s fracking fluid is entirely made out of “ingredients sourced from the food industry.” Prior to Hickenlooper’s stunt, Halliburton CEO Dave Lesar offered a company executive to demonstrate the company’s new fracking fluid recipe, CleanStim, by drinking it during a 2011 keynote speech at a conference held by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. However, Halliburton’s website says that its “CleanStim fluid system should not be considered edible.”
This legislation has one Senate cosponsor, Sen. Jeff Merkeley (D-OR). Its House companion is sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). Numerous environmental justice and environmental advocacy organizations support this legislation. They include the Sierra Club, Food & Water Action, Greenpeace USA, Climate Justice Alliance, Data for Progress, Friends of the Earth, 350.org, Oil Change International, and the Center for Biological Diversity.
Of Note: According to the U.S. Interior Dept.’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue, over 2.86 b/d of oil and 18.13 Bcf/d of natural gas production took place on federal land in FY2019. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that that production accounted for about 23% of total U.S. oil output and about 18% of total natural gas production for the year.
The oil and gas industry has historically advertised natural gas, much of which is obtained by fracking, as a “bridge fuel.” By making previously-inaccessible oil and gas reserves reachable, fracking has enabled an oil and gas boom that has made the U.S. a fossil fuel powerhouse that could dominate global production for decades. Over the last decade, fracking has fueled U.S. oil and gas productivity, increasing American oil output by 84% over the 2010s and natural gas production by 39% over the same period. In total, more than 1.7 million U.S. wells have been completed using the fracking process. This has made the U.S. a net exporter of natural gas and nearly an overall net exporter of energy.
Some contend that fracking has significantly benefited both the U.S. economy as a whole and households in areas where fracking occurs. A 2016 Chamber of Commerce study projected that if the previous decade’s fracking revolution hadn’t occurred, 4.3 million jobs wouldn’t have been created, the U.S. economy would be $500 billion smaller, and residential natural gas prices would be 25% higher. The National Bureau of Economic Research, in a 2016 study, found that fracking brought an average of $1,300-1,900 in annual benefits to local households. This figure included a 7% increase in annual income, a 10% increase in employment, and a 6% increase in housing prices. More generally, a 2017 American Petroleum Institute (API) report found that the oil and natural gas industry overall supported 10.3 million U.S. jobs and projected the industry would add an additional 1.9 million jobs by 2035.
Food & Water Action agrees with the oil and gas industry’s characterization of natural gas as a “bridge,” but sees this as a negative, rather than positive, development. In a report, Food & Water Action writes:
“Increasing natural gas production simply continues a never-ending ‘bridge,’ displaces clean, renewable energy, and locks in dirty fossil fuel infrastructure for decades. As coal plants close slightly earlier than planned, they are replaced with gas plants that typically have lifespans of 40 to 50 years.”
Thanks in large part to fracking, the U.S. is on track to extract enough new oil and gas by 2050 to make it virtually impossible to avoid a 1.5 degrees-plus Celsius rise in global temperatures. That is the threshold at which scientists believe the planet could face irreversible and catastrophic changes that impact public health, livelihoods, quality of life, food security, water supplies, human security and economic growth.
However, evidence now shows that fracking is a key driver of the recent global spike in methane emissions (which are over 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat and thereby contributing to the greenhouse effect).
Fracking-related pollution’s impacts are most often felt in vulnerable communities, including low-income, minority, and indigenous communities. According to Sen. Sanders’ office, more than one million African-Americans live within a half mile of oil and natural gas wells and facilities, and children in such communities experience 138,000 additional asthma attacks and 101,000 lost school days each year due to ozone increases from natural gas emissions.
In the absence of federal legislation on this issue, a handful of states — including New York (the first state with sizable fossil fuel reserves to end fracking within its borders), Vermont, Maryland, and Washington — and municipalities across the U.S. have instituted their own fracking bans. However, it’s worth noting that with the exception of New York, these locations don’t have significant natural gas reserves to be fracked in the first place; so their decisions to ban fracking likely didn’t significantly impact their local economies. As of 2015, 90% of U.S. production, excluding federal offshore drilling, came from eight states: Texas, North Dakota, California, Alaska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Wyoming.
Globally, a number of countries and financial actors have already limited oil and gas extraction. At the country level, Costa Rica and France have had full licensing bans or moratoria in place since 2011 and 2017, respectively. Additionally, New Zealand, Belize, and Denmark have all partial licensing bans in place since 2018. At the financier level, the World Bank, Swedfund, Agence Française de Développement and the European Investment Bank have all removed financing for upstream oil and gas projects (the European Investment Bank’s phaseout will begin in 2021).
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / FreezeFrames)