Fracked by his words: Biden walks a fine line on fossil gas

Climate change and the energy transition have become driving themes of the U.S. presidential race. Stable genius Trump still doubts the science. The POTUS proudly boasts that by unleashing fracking, he’s made America great again –turning it into the world’s largest oil and gas producer. His challenger, former vice president Joe Biden, has made the greening of America’s economy central to his Covid-19 economic recovery plan. Biden intends to lead an “energy revolution” aimed at achieving 100% clean electricity by 2035 while cutting U.S. emissions to net zero no later than 2050. Center to the fight is the future of fracking. Biden’s been forced to walk a tight rope between progressive Bernie Sanders supporters who want to ban it, powerful party insiders who still profit from it, and moderate swing voters economically dependent on it. As usual, Trump is exploiting these divisions as he desperately clings to power. Lead blogger L. Michael Buchsbaum takes us through.

Fracking is one of the most controversial issues in the us presidential election campaign  (Copyright L. Michael Buchsbaum)

Making America Great

A bi-partisan effort fueled by copious Wall Street cash, fracking has unlocked tremendous oil and gas resources, boosted many regional economies, and made a few insiders super-rich. Unleashed under President George W. Bush, fracking accelerated during President Obama and vice-president Biden, booming some 72% through 2016 according to the Energy Information Administration. Under successor Trump, America has indeed become the world’s largest oil and gas producer—vaulting over both Saudi Arabia and Russia in 2018.

Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, a process in which millions of gallons of clean water, tons of sand and untold chemicals are pumped deep into the ground at high pressure to break up layers of rock trapping fossil oil and gas–has become the nation’s dominant extraction method. But there is mounting scientific evidence that fracking can release toxic, often radioactive chemicals into the air, contaminate drinking water supplies, create earthquakes and is responsible for a host of negative health impacts for those living near or downwind of fracking sites. Fugitive methane escaping during the fracking process and downstream is also leading to massive spikes in atmospheric levels, accelerating the climate crisis, essentially wiping out many of the emissions benefits of shifting away from coal.

Internal splits

Leadership in both parties and most corporate media have largely tried to ignore that public acceptance of fracking has dwindled. Governing its future splits much of the Democratic Party. As progressives at all levels lead grassroots campaigns against fracking, the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and party leadership, including mega-donor and short-lived presidential candidate billionaire Michael Bloomberg, has come out against initiatives intended to reduce its spread, increase regulations or give communities more local control.

This intra-party fault line resonated throughout the Democratic primaries with progressives Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris all firmly committing to banning it. Biden, and other moderates including former Colorado Governor and long-shot candidate, John Hickenlooper, offered much less ambitious climate plans.

Back in March, as Bernie continued to rise in the polls, Biden began co-opting his rival’s strong anti-fracking, pro-environmental position. During a debate Biden claimed that if elected, he too would ban it—stating that under his administration there’d be “No more – no new fracking.”

Since then, the candidate and now nominee has been trying to walk that back. Unquestionably, Biden has put forth the most ambitious climate plan of any presidential candidate in history—promising, among other things, to get the country to 100% clean electricity generation by 2035 and to invest $400 billion in clean energy innovation and technology over 10 years. Biden also signed a pledge back in June promising not to take donations from fossil fuel companies.

But on the campaign trail, Biden remains fuzzy. First, he said he meant only a ban on new federal land-drilling leases, and since August he’s been vehemently stressing that “I am not banning fracking.” As Trump & Crew try to convince their supporters and undecided voters otherwise, Biden helped strengthen Trump’s argument with his choice of running mate: Senator Harris, herself one of the original sponsors of the Green New Deal and a previous supporter of a ban on fracking.

Fracked by his own words

Nowhere is Biden walking a finer line than in his home state of Pennsylvania. The “Keystone State” was home to America’s first oil wells, coal mines, railroads and steel mills. It was also home to America’s first fracking boom. Fracking unlocked unfathomable amounts of gas from the Marcellus Shale formation. Still the nation’s largest pure-play fossil gas field, before the industry began collapsing in June 2019, it employed over 32,000 statewide, according to a New York Times analysis. When a voter asked him to clarify his stance during a recent Pennsylvania town hall campaign stop, Biden pivoted instead to fracking’s past, highlighting the jobs potential of cleaning up the industry. Throughout the state he rightly reminded, there are “thousands of uncapped wells because a lot of companies gone out of business. Whether they’re gas or oil facilities, we can put to work right away 250,000 people from iron workers and other disciplines, making union wages. Capping those wells that are leaking methane and their danger to the community.”

Indeed, after two centuries of heavy industry, Pennsylvanians now suffer the country’s second-worst air quality. According to one recent poll, 83% of voters in the state think climate change is a serious problem and 58% look unfavorably on lawmakers who oppose strong action to combat it.

Despite this, the state’s governor, Democrat Tom Wolf, recently signed a bipartisan bill approving $670m in tax breaks for the gas industry. Opposition candidates and environmental groups like Food & Water Watch have long reminded that the push to make Pennsylvania a petrochemical hub is mostly about producing single-use plastics, not cheap energy to power homes.

As fracking collapses along with America’s economy, the oil and gas industry remains a major employer –an increasing rarity across Trump’s Covid-ravaged land. The fear of job losses is precisely why he keeps repeating that Biden will try to ban it.

But even if Biden does manage to win, it’s unlikely he or any other future president could effectuate a full nationwide ban on fracking. That would be impossible without an act of Congress—where there are plenty of other Democrats fuzzy around fracking. Though Biden could, like Obama did with coal, issue a blizzard of regulations against it, that strategy would likely also face major legal challenges in America’s increasingly conservative Supreme Court.


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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