In Crucial PA, Fracking Could Decide The 2020 Race
Former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden stated last week that he would not ban hydraulic fracking if he wins in November. This is not a new position for Biden, though there have been moments were his position wasn’t exact.
Still, the former Vice President’s stance on fracking, an oil and gas process that has pushed the U.S. toward the front of energy production internationally, has vast implications politically. Depending on his final stance, Biden could garner support from conservative and alienate progressive ones, or vice versa.
FRACKING AND ITS POLITICAL IMPORTANCE
Hydraulic fracking, commonly shortened to fracking, involves drilling into the ground and shooting liquid materials—water and other substances—at high pressures to loosen shale. While this allows oil and gas to be extracted and has produced millions of jobs in the U.S., it has also shown to significantly contaminate local water supplies.
This dichotomy—job production versus serious environmental concerns—has grown to become an important piece of the wider conservation and environmental debate over the past decade. Currently, states oversee whether or not fracking is allowed within their borders, and the extent to which it is allowed. New York, Vermont, and Maryland have all banned fracking, while several other states that currently allow it have instituted moratoria on new fracking wells.
This includes Pennsylvania, a state that has tremendous importance in the oil and gas industry and electoral politics.
Underneath Pennsylvanian soil is the Marcellus Shale formation, possibly the most significant source of gas in the country. By some accounts, the fracking boom that began in the late 2000s helped keep the state afloat thanks to the thousands of jobs produced and promised.
Overall, Pennsylvania accounts for a significant portion of U.S. energy, notably 20% of natural gas production in 2018. More recently, however, it appears the industry has begun to stall in the commonwealth. Even before the pandemic forced the economy to grind to a halt, the fracking industry looked to be in jeopardy thanks in part to its aggressive over-expansion over the last decade.
The importance and risk of fracking in Pennsylvania have easily oozed into electoral politics. Voters in the commonwealth have had to grapple with scrutinizing fracking’s payoff—jobs vs. serious health risks—amid growing calls from the left and environmental rights groups to curtail or ban the practice.
BIDEN, FRACKING, AND THE 2020 ELECTION
There is no doubt that this impending election is different than that of 2016.
Former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, broadly favored to win, lost Pennsylvania by a slim margin. This was the first time the commonwealth opted for a Republican presidential candidate in three decades.
At the time, fracking was not as potentially important politically as it is in 2020. Clinton supported the use of fracking at the time; her defeat is not tied to this.
The ground seems to have shifted, however. Climate and environmental policy, already an issue of concern among voters, has ballooned to become one of the most important. And with its risks more widely acknowledged, fracking has become a notable part of this trend.
In the run-up to the Democratic presidential primaries, the fracking policy became a popularly questioned part of each candidate’s platform. All of the 26 major candidates for the Democratic ticket supported some type of regulation on the process and industry, with 11 calling for an outright ban on fracking.
This did not include Joe Biden. Instead, he has called for limiting it, banning new fracking on public lands, although he has also said that he supports eliminating the use of all fossil fuels over time.
Throughout this campaign, Biden has signaled support for both the current level of fracking conducted across the U.S. and the notion of limiting and eventually banning fracking in the future.
During a debate in July of 2019, Biden said he would “make sure [fossil fuel use] is eliminated” if he were to become President. His campaign later explained this meant an end to subsidies for fossil fuels. Then, in a debate last March, Biden stated he supports a ban on new fracking.
Simply, Biden believes the U.S. needs to limit fracking by banning it from public lands. He does not support an outright ban but has shown he agrees that the practice needs to be curtailed and ended over time.
Still, his nuanced stance has caused some tension. Having won the Democratic nomination, Biden has received pressure from the left to be more progressive across the board, including regarding energy and environmental policy.
Biden has largely answered this call to action by putting together an ambitious climate action plan that looks to lower emissions and pollution quickly. The plan is massive on infrastructure investment and innovation. It also has been knocked by climate activists who say it needs to go farther in protecting public lands and by including a carbon tax. However, it has received broad support from moderate and progressive organizations and lawmakers.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has shown unequivocal support for fracking and the use of fossil fuels. This is the standard position taken by his Republican Party—it’s also a purposeful jab at his opponent to secure Pennsylvania.
In addition to spending a great deal of time in the commonwealth, the Trump campaign has also aired ads knocking Biden’s stance on fracking. Biden has refuted Trump’s assertion that the former Vice President wants to outlaw all fracking immediately.
Trump won the commonwealth by just 44,000 votes in 2016, an incredibly slim margin. Notably, the parts of Pennsylvania that voted for him—and the parts Biden will need to flip to win—are also the parts in which fracking is a powerful presence.
In an election season with countless moving parts and nonstop headlines, an issue like fracking in Pennsylvania, though relatively minor compared to broader policy issues, could be pivotal.