Frack­ing ush­ers in new Dem de­bate

La­bor skep­ti­cal of call from some 2020 hope­fuls seek­ing ban

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By Ni­cholas Ric­cardi

DEN­VER — Sev­eral Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates are run­ning on a prom­ise to ban frack­ing — and step­ping on un­sta­ble po­lit­i­cal ground as they do so.

An all-out pro­hi­bi­tion on the con­tro­ver­sial nat­u­ral gas ex­trac­tion process — backed by Sens. Ka­mala Har­ris, Bernie San­ders and El­iz­a­beth War­ren — has been well re­ceived by the lib­eral and cli­mate-fo­cused vot­ers watch­ing the pri­mary. But the pro­posal also threat­ens to an­tag­o­nize unions and vot­ers in ar­eas that de­pend on oil and gas for jobs.

That op­po­si­tion may be fiercest in some of the states Democrats care about most.

Ban­ning frack­ing could have a dra­matic im­pact on the econ­omy in Penn­syl­va­nia, a state Democrats con­sider a must-win in their pur­suit of the White House. It could also jeop­ar­dize the party’s hold on Colorado, a swing state trend­ing its way, not to men­tion Democrats’ dreams of win­ning statewide in Texas, head­quar­ters of the en­ergy in­dus­try and home to 137,000 nat­u­ral gas wells.

The can­di­dates’ sup­port for a ban is one of the clear­est ex­am­ples of the party’s move to the left in its 2020 pri­mary.

Only a few years ago, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama cel­e­brated the ben­e­fits of frack­ing — wel­com­ing the en­ergy in­de­pen­dence and lower costs that come from an in­crease in do­mes­tic pro­duc­tion. To ad­dress en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns, his ad­min­is­tra­tion fo­cused on tighter reg­u­la­tion of frack­ing on fed­eral land but largely steered clear of the state-level bat­tles over whether the prac­tice was dan­ger­ous, dirty or ac­cel­er­at­ing cli­mate change by en­cour­ag­ing de­pen­dence on fos­sil fuels. Even most en­vi­ron­men­tal groups have ad­vo­cated for reg­u­la­tion, not an all-out ban.

But cli­mate ad­vo­cates have en­joyed grow­ing in­flu­ence in the pri­mary, as the party’s base is in­creas­ingly fo­cused on cli­mate change and search­ing for im­me­di­ate and mean­ing­ful pol­icy so­lu­tions — even if the po­lit­i­cal path for those ideas is un­clear.

“To say that you would ban frack­ing is a very dif­fi­cult po­si­tion to take in some key states,” said Rick Rid­der, a Demo­cratic strate­gist who worked as Howard Dean’s 2004 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign man­ager and fought frack­ing in Colorado. “There’s an ex­tremely im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion be­tween lo­cal con­trol and ban­ning some­thing.”

In cli­mate change town halls this month, Har­ris, San­ders and War­ren called for bans on frack­ing. Oth­ers, like for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den and the two Tex­ans in the race — for­mer Sec­re­tary of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment Ju­lian Cas­tro and for­mer Rep. Beto O’Rourke — have balked at such a step, which some cam­paigns ac­knowl­edge would re­quire leg­isla­tive ac­tion.

The pol­i­tics of hy­draulic frac­tur­ing, or frack­ing, are highly volatile. The process in­volves in­ject­ing chem­i­cals into the Earth to free nat­u­ral gas trapped in rock. The tech­nol­ogy has en­abled en­ergy com­pa­nies to drill in pre­vi­ously in­ac­ces­si­ble ar­eas, in­clud­ing in sub­ur­ban neigh­bor­hoods where new gas wells can cause op­po­si­tion that de­fies tra­di­tional par­ti­san lines. Ac­tive en­ergy wells can crush prop­erty values and fan fears of con­tam­i­nated drink­ing wa­ter, air pol­lu­tion and even earth­quakes, which some stud­ies link to frack­ing.

Polling shows mount­ing pub­lic skep­ti­cism about the tech­nique. An As­so­ci­ated Press-NORC poll last month found only 22% of Amer­i­cans sup­port in­creas­ing frack­ing while 45% op­pose it. In 2014, just 31% reg­is­tered op­po­si­tion. New York’s Demo­cratic gov­er­nor, An­drew Cuomo, banned the pro­ce­dure in his state, as has Repub­li­can Gov. Larry Ho­gan of Mary­land.

Some en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists ar­gue that frack­ing’s poor polling shows Democrats aren’t tak­ing a po­lit­i­cal risk by call­ing for a ban now. “Cli­mate change and the en­vi­ron­ment are go­ing to be stronger is­sues for Democrats,” said Mitch Jones of Food and Wa­ter Ac­tion. “Even in a state like Penn­syl­va­nia, tak­ing a strong stand will help who­ever is the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee.”

At the same time, jobs created by frack­ing have been a boost to some la­bor unions. The ac­tiv­ity helps the econ­omy and low­ers en­ergy costs. A study in 2015 from the non­par­ti­san Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion found that house­holds gained $200 from frack­ing just from lower gas prices alone.

Mike Mikus, a Demo­cratic strate­gist in Penn­syl­va­nia, re­called an up­roar in his own his­tor­i­cally Repub­li­can Pitts­burgh sub­urb when the school dis­trict pro­posed leas­ing land for frack­ing.

Mean­while, the state’s frack­ing boom has led to the con­struc­tion of a mas­sive en­ergy plant north­west of the city that has created thou­sands of con­struc­tion jobs and was the site of a rally by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump last month. The pres­i­dent touted the eco­nomic ben­e­fits of frack­ing, which have ex­tended not just to Penn­syl­va­nia but also to neigh­bor­ing West Vir­ginia and Ohio.

Mikus said it’s hard to pre­dict the out­come of a Penn­syl­va­nia elec­tion in which the Demo­crat wants to end frack­ing be­cause no Demo­cratic nom­i­nee has ever run statewide with that plat­form be­fore. Democrats who have called for frack­ing bans have lost statewide pri­maries.

“I can’t say it elim­i­nates the chance of some­one win­ning, but it makes it tougher,” Mikus said.

La­bor is skep­ti­cal. “The is­sue is eco­nomics. Peo­ple vote with their pock­et­books,” said Rick Bloom­ing­dale, pres­i­dent of Penn­syl­va­nia AFL-CIO. “Peo­ple have got to have a solid fi­nan­cial foot­ing be­fore they think about other is­sues.”

In Colorado, Democrats won a ma­jor bat­tle to rein in frack­ing af­ter Demo­cratic Gov. John Hick­en­looper, an ex-petroleum ge­ol­o­gist, left of­fice. Its new Demo­cratic gov­er­nor, Jared Po­lis, has helped fi­nance ef­forts to fight frack­ing and com­plained about an en­ergy com­pany build­ing a well next to land he owns in north­ern Colorado. Af­ter Democrats took over the state leg­is­la­ture in Novem­ber, they pushed through a bill that al­lows lo­cal gov­ern­ments to reg­u­late en­ergy ex­plo­ration within their bound­aries.

But Po­lis and most Democrats have stressed they’re not out to ban frack­ing statewide. Wild Earth Guardians, an en­vi­ron­men­tal group push­ing for the end of frack­ing, has been urg­ing Po­lis to come out against the tech­nique with no suc­cess.

“We need to take the next step for­ward of say­ing all fos­sil fuels are the prob­lem,” said Jeremy Ni­chols, di­rec­tor of the group’s cli­mate and en­ergy pro­gram.

JAE C. HONG/AP 2015

Some Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls are call­ing for frack­ing bans. Above, pump­jacks in Bak­ers­field, Calif.

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