Presidential candidates including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have called to ban fracking as too destructive to the environment, given the methane it releases into the atmosphere, and its potentially contaminating effects in water and elsewhere. But fracking, pushed by both the Obama and Trump administrations, has been key to the U.S. becoming the world’s biggest oil and gas producer and created jobs in the energy industry.
The struggle between environmental and economic concerns has big stakes in swing state Pennsylvania, where presidential candidates’ positions on fracking can make or break their campaigns with environmental advocates on one side, and union workers protective of energy jobs on the other. High-profile Pennsylvania politicians including Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto have expressed concern that a Democrat who wants to ban fracking cannot win the state.
The Inquirer turned to Fetterman and Karen Feridun, the founder of a grassroots environmental organization, to answer: Should the next U.S. president work to ban fracking?
By John Fetterman
I was proud to sign the “No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge” back in 2015, before most people even heard of it. As a matter of principle, I’ve never taken a single dime from the fossil fuel industry, and I never will.
I signed that pledge because we need to innovate past fossil fuels and embrace more sustainable energy sources. My motivation comes from an earnest desire to proclaim what I believe to be true; my decisions come from diligence and research, not from any kind of quid pro quo with industry or others.
I am drawing from honest belief when I say: Banning fracking in Pennsylvania right now is wholly unrealistic. The fracking debate exposes a dual truth in American politics: Republicans must get honest about climate. My party must get honest about energy and industry. The messy collision of these realities is most stark here in Pennsylvania.
We must move past a false binary that says: either you’re against fracking and you’re pure, or you’re in favor and you’re evil. I support the Sunrise Movement of young people advocating to fight climate change. I also stand in solidarity with Steelworkers and Building Trades workers.
This is not an easy issue. There’s an interdependence between industrial and environmental systems that have been in place for generations. Abruptly pulling out the piece we don’t like will have unintended consequences we must consider.
You can’t label me “pro-fracking” unless you have an answer for millions of working-class people, who are barely getting by, when a ban pushes their winter gas bills to unimaginable levels, or for seniors who will be deciding which prescription to dump just to stay warm.
Exploring Pennsylvania’s energy realities with honest expectations doesn’t make a person anti-environment. Nor does banning fracking in your own state and then buying natural gas from another state make you an ecowarrior. It makes you a hypocrite.
We need to consider the lost jobs and preserve the union way of life at all costs while moving to greener energy. We can’t all work at Google. We need to make sure we’re transitioning into something, not just up and dropping a major provider of employment and affordable energy.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s Restore Pennsylvania creates green jobs while making fracking companies pay for contaminant remediation, brownfield clean-up, lead remediation in our schools, improving water quality, and helping rebuild communities from the flooding and severe weather we’ve seen as a result of climate change. Restore Pennsylvania’s record investment hinges on the GOP-led legislature agreeing to a severance tax paid mostly by out-of-state residents, generating $4.5 billion over the next 20 years for these projects across the state.
If that sounds like a good idea, call your state representative and senator and tell them.
While we need to aggressively move away from fossil fuels, we also need plans to make sure we’re being balanced. If we’re not thinking of the consequences, we’ll leave ourselves open for the kind of desperation that comes with unemployment and unbearable costs of living. That would be terrible for both vulnerable people and the environment.
Taking a position to immediately end fracking in Pennsylvania plays exactly into President Donald Trump’s narrative that Democrats are anti-energy zealots who want to take your jobs — a narrative that will undoubtedly harm our work on the environment.
The voters will ultimately come for me, too, either to elevate me or eliminate me. I will be at peace with either outcome because an honest reconciliation of these truths is critical to our political, economic, and collective ecological survival.
John Fetterman is the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania.
By Karen Feridun
We are on track to leave to future generations a world that is far worse than the one we inherited. If we are to hope for a better outcome, we must stop producing greenhouse gases. The next U.S. president must ban fracking, and Congress must help.
Climate scientists are urging us to leave all fossil fuels in the ground so that they’ll never be burned. That includes natural gas, which needs to stay there so it doesn’t leak either.
Methane molecules that leak during every stage of natural gas production hit the atmosphere at 100 times carbon dioxide’s global warming potential. Molecules entering the atmosphere as you read this will still be there when we have run out of time to address the climate crisis. Fracking is not the only source of methane leakage, but may be responsible for about a third of emissions increases from all sources over the past decade, a recent study found.
Some states, like Maryland and New York, have already instituted bans, but no major gas-producing states are among them. In Pennsylvania, the second-biggest gas producer in the nation and a state responsible for about 1% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, shale gas development has enjoyed strong bipartisan support. Politicians’ show of fracking support has repeated in state after state, as have the profound impacts politicians all too often ignore.
More than 1,500 peer-reviewed studies point to a wide range of adverse impacts from fracking on air quality, water quality, and economic outcomes, among many others. We are learning about more impacts every day. At least 35 studies considering these effects have been published so far this year. Fracking has been linked to a long list of adverse health effects that include low birth weight, high-risk pregnancy, endocrine disorders, cardiac conditions, neurological conditions, and some cancers. Families in the rural counties where fracking began in Pennsylvania fear that it is the cause of an alarming increase in rare childhood cancers.
Support for shale gas development continues despite warnings from the financial community that the fracking experiment has failed. At an industry conference last year, Steve Schlotterbeck, former CEO of EQT, one of the nation’s leading gas producers, called the shale gas revolution an “unmitigated disaster.” EQT was among the Pittsburgh-based fracking companies that together cut more than 400 jobs last year. The climate movement is working to ensure a just transition for communities and workers so nobody is left behind.
The dire analyses have only caused politicians to work harder to keep fracking alive. In Pennsylvania, HB 1100, a bill that would provide massive incentives to the petrochemical industry to make plastics from fracked natural gas liquids, passed easily this month. Gov. Tom Wolf has promised to veto the bill, but his Restore Pennsylvania infrastructure plan includes its own incentives for plastics manufacturers.
To borrow a metaphor from Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace, and Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center: When the bathtub is overflowing, what do you do first? Do you grab towels and start mopping up the water, or do you turn off the tap? Pro-fracking states have chosen a third option, a preposterous one: to turn up the pressure.
What communities in the shale fields, on the paths of pipelines, and near the sites of the attendant infrastructure already know is that there simply aren’t enough towels. The next president must turn off the tap.
Karen Feridun is the founder of Berks Gas Truth and cofounder of the Better Path Coalition.