Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are feuding over fracking as they head toward primaries in gas-rich New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland — exposing a rift among Democrats that could haunt her at the party’s convention in July and beyond.
The presidential hopefuls’ positions don’t seem vastly different on the surface: Sanders vows to ban the controversial oil- and gas-production technology outright, while Clinton has said she would regulate it so thoroughly that “I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place.” But Sanders’ pledge is the one that has caught fire with grass-roots green activists, who feel emboldened in their crusade against fossil fuels after pushing President Barack Obama to kill the Keystone XL oil pipeline and block drilling off the East Coast.
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Sanders’ supporters hope his message will be especially powerful in Tuesday’s primary in New York state, where Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned fracking in 2014 as a risk to public health.
But even if Sanders doesn’t seize the nomination, the fervor surrounding the issue threatens to back Clinton into a corner, toward an uncompromising anti-fossil-fuel stance that could harm her with moderate voters in November — especially in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, where the fracking boom has created thousands of jobs.
The split could also hamper efforts to unify the squabbling Clinton and Sanders camps at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, where green groups plan to bring thousands of protesters to press the party for a nationwide fracking ban.
Fracking’s opponents say this is no time for compromise, arguing that the threat of climate change demands a wholesale switch away from fossil fuels. They also say the underground injection of vast volumes of water, sand and chemicals to pry open oil- and gas-rich shale foundations is inherently unsafe, no matter its economic benefits.
“If we want a chance at protecting our nation’s coastal cities — including New York, where this week’s Democratic debate is being held — then we must keep fossil fuels in the ground,” the climate group 350 Action wrote on Tuesday while pleading for the Clinton Foundation to forswear donations from fossil-fuel interests. “That’s going to take a lot of backbone.”
Sanders has that backbone, Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley said Wednesday while endorsing the Vermont senator in a New York Times op-ed. “He has passionately advocated for pivoting from fossil fuels to renewable energy to save our planet from global warming — the greatest threat facing humanity,” Merkley wrote.
Clinton’s allies say the ban’s proponents are being unrealistic, noting that even as president Sanders would not have the power to prohibit fracking nationwide. They say Sanders and his backers are also ignoring the benefits that the fracking-fueled oil and gas boom has created on Obama’s watch — not just jobs, exports and sharply falling energy prices, but also a cut in greenhouse gas pollution as natural gas eats into coal’s share of the U.S. power supply.
Banning fracking is “a siren song for the numbers of Americans who don’t like fracking,” said John Hanger, a consultant who served as environmental secretary to former Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. “It’s bad policy. It would actually create more pollution and raise the price of gas. It’s economically unjust, which is ironic given the Sanders campaign’s focus on economic injustice.”
At an oil industry symposium Wednesday, West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin paraphrased a favorite quote of former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer — that “unless you’re naked, sitting in a tree, eating nuts, you’re using energy. And I think Bernie might be naked, sitting in a tree, eating nuts.”
As for Clinton, Manchin said, greens have “tried to push her further left than where she’s comfortable.”
The Democratic front-runner has already veered considerably leftward during her primary campaign, however, coming out against the Keystone pipeline as well against the Obama administration’s initial willingness to drill off the Arctic and Atlantic coasts. In a debate last month, she also laid out a series of conditions she would require fracking operations to meet, including steps to prevent water pollution and leaks of greenhouse gases.
“We have to regulate everything that is currently underway, and we have to have a system in place that prevents further fracking unless conditions like the ones that I just mentions are met,” Clinton said during the debate in Flint, Mich., answering a question on whether she supports fracking.
Sanders replied: “My answer is a lot shorter. No. I do not support fracking.”
In a statement Wednesday, Clinton’s campaign sought to minimize her differences with Sanders, saying she supports New York state’s ban, would tighten federal fracking regulations “and will stand with any community or state that decides they don’t want to allow fracking in their backyards.”
“Our real enemy in this fight is Republicans like Donald Trump who deny that climate change is happening, block attempts to crack down on polluters and refuse to support clean energy like wind and solar because they are in the pocket of big oil and gas companies,” the Clinton campaign added.
Both Democrats’ positions contrast with the frequent cheerleading that Obama has offered for the oil and gas boom, including during several State of the Union addresses. In his 2012 speech to Congress, he boasted that the boom has created “a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years.”
But former Obama energy and climate adviser Heather Zichal said the public has since become disenchanted with the dangers posed by oil and gas production, and the Democrats are debating how best to deal with that.
“There is a lack of trust with people when it comes to the oil and gas industry, and it’s how Democrats thread that needle,” Zichal said at Wednesday’s energy forum, adding that “the industry could do a better job, frankly, of communicating the risks and what they’re trying to do to manage that.”
Zichal, a Clinton supporter, said in an earlier interview that she sees “a big difference” between the two candidates’ positions, arguing that Clinton’s call for tougher regulations creates “so much opportunity to do really important things.”
“It’s easy to say ‘let’s ban it,’ but I don’t know that that’s going to amount to much,” she said.
Recent polls show Clinton leading Sanders in New York, as well as in the April 26 primaries in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
The politics of fracking differ sharply in the three states, however. Similar to the ban in New York, Maryland has imposed a two-year fracking moratorium that Republican Gov. Larry Hogan allowed to become law without his signature. Opinions are divided in Pennsylvania, which became a major natural gas producer thanks to fracking: A February poll from Muhlenberg College found 50 percent of voters support the practice but 62 percent favor new taxes on the industry.
Even in Pennsylvania, though, insurgent Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak is leading polls for this month’s primary while pushing for a fracking moratorium. Katie McGinty, who has the support of the Democratic establishment, is facing attacks for her ties to oil and gas companies, similar to the jabs Clinton has faced over the Clinton Foundation’s $1 million-plus in donations from ExxonMobil.
Obama has added to Clinton’s woes by abandoning his once-pragmatic praise for natural gas as a way to wean the nation off coal. The Obama who praised gas for creating “cleaner power and greater energy independence” in 2013 has fallen from view as his administration spends its final year pursuing new regulations on the industry’s methane emissions.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, are somewhat divided on fracking’s place in the presidential race.
Food and Water Watch spokesman Seth Gladstone, whose green group is helping organize the anti-fracking march in Philadelphia, pointed to a Gallup poll two weeks ago that found national opposition to the practice spiking to 51 percent. “We’re finally seeing the political conversation catch up with the science, catch up with public opinion,” he said.
But the national branches of several major environmental groups have not joined Gladstone’s group, 350.org, Greenpeace and other smaller activist nonprofits in their formal alliance against fracking. The League of Conservation Voters, one of the environmental movement’s biggest political players, has already endorsed Clinton.
One pro-Clinton environmentalist described Sanders’ call for a nationwide fracking ban as “a slogan instead of a policy.”
“There are all kinds of ways to do this right,” the environmentalist added, “but it’s important to note that unless one’s proposing to eliminate the use of fossil fuels right now, today, one can’t do it without creating some pollution.”
The split among the greens offers the fossil-fuel industry an opportunity to remind voters of the economic gains the U.S. has received from fracking, including record-high exports of oil and gas in December.
“What you likely won’t be hearing from Sen. Sanders … is that New Yorkers need to turn off the gas in their homes, or start paying more for their electricity,” said Steve Everley, a senior adviser to the industry-backed project Energy in Depth. “That’s what ‘ban fracking now’ is really about, and he’s banking on the press never asking him to map out exactly where energy comes from.”
As for Clinton, the industry is looking for her to veer back to the center even before November. The American Petroleum Institute’s top lobbyist, Louis Finkel, recently suggested that Clinton would moderate how far she pushes her promise for ultra-tight regulations on fracking.
“I don’t think she provided much clarity about the conditions she set forth — she talked very broad-brush,” Finkel told reporters.
Still, fracking opponents say they won’t let up the pressure on Clinton even if she wins the White House. Lena Moffitt, the Sierra Club’s fuels campaign director, described greens’ increased focus on natural gas as a way to push the next president to come down as hard on the fossil fuel as Obama eventually did on Keystone.
“Folks are realizing this is the next frontier of the climate movement,” Moffitt said in an interview.