Biden Can't Reach His Own Climate Goals Without Banning Fracking

Trump tried—and failed—to ride fears about a fracking ban to a second term. Now Biden needs to confront fossil fuels.

Wenonah Hauter

Equipment at a fracking well in Culberson County, Texas. Despite calls from climate activists to ban fracking, Biden has yet to make a comprehensive fracking ban part of his climate plan. Photo by Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images

Donald Trump’s desperate attempt to turn fears of a fracking ban in Pennsylvania into a winning issue turned out to be a flop. One post-election tally shows that the most heavily fracked counties in the state were not only not swayed by Trump’s blizzard of fracking rhetoric, but he actually lost ground in most of these areas.

Those of us who have spent a decade or more in the anti-fracking movement were not surprised that Trump’s brazen lies did not fool Pennsylvanians. While the conventional wisdom has always held that voters in the state would never back anti-fracking political candidates, the truth is that communities across the state that have seen the damage up close are already fighting to create a different future.

While the Biden team — and some centrist Democrats — might feel like the whole issue of fracking was an unwelcome distraction, the success of the president-elect’s climate plan relies heavily on what he will do to rein in fossil fuel drilling. Biden’s climate ambitions shifted remarkably over the course of the campaign; he went from keeping activists at arms length — even telling primary voters who opposed fracking or backed a Green New Deal to choose a different candidate—to announcing a $2 trillion package that sought to achieve carbon-free electricity by 2035 and net zero” carbon emissions overall by 2050.

While he should push those timelines faster, we cannot realistically hit those goals if we continue to extract fossil fuels from the ground and burn them. That approach is like adding fuel to a fire while dripping a little water on it at the same time. Biden’s administration must work with the next Congress to stop the supply of fossil fuels: No more drilling and fracked gas pipelines, and no new fossil fuel power plants. This, in essence, is what it means to ban fracking.

Now there are some who argue that this is a distraction. For them, Biden’s climate plan will in effect make drilling more or less obsolete, since the clean energy targets will prove incompatible with new oil and gas drilling, and the industry will, for lack of a better word, ban itself.

This is dangerously naive. For starters, most gas drilling in the United States does not go to generating electricity; as the fossil fuel industry has desperately searched for ways to prop up the status quo, it has shifted its focus to supplying the plastics and petrochemicals industries, or even shipping fracked gas overseas (what Trump officials termed freedom gas’). Domestic clean electricity targets are necessary, but they would not affect any of this drilling.

Furthermore, there are ways that fossil fuel drilling could be essentially re-branded as climate action. Take carbon capture, which enjoys bipartisan political support and the backing of corporate polluters. The industry spins out scenarios that are literally too good to be true, imagining that emissions from coal mining and fossil fuel power plants can be caught prior to entering the atmosphere, minimizing or even eliminating their climate impact. Yet despite being heavily subsidized by the federal government for decades, there is no evidence that carbon capture actually works; most of the active projects simply re-use captured carbon dioxide to get more oil out of existing wells.

Unfortunately, many of Biden’s top climate advisers — the very people who will help shape the country’s climate policy — have long careers promoting fossil fuel interests, and have championed fracking, carbon capture and exporting fracked gas. Ernest Moniz, a close adviser to Biden on climate policy who could be the next Energy Secretary, literally wrote the playbook on promoting fracking as a climate-friendly bridge to a clean energy future. The announcement that Biden had tapped Rep. Cedric Richmond to play a leading role on the administration’s climate agenda elicited strong criticism from all corners of the climate movement, and for good reason: Richmond has constantly sided with the fossil fuel industries — pushing for more pipelines and fracked gas exports — while those companies have showered him with campaign donations.

Unfortunately, many Democratic lawmakers who are relying on carbon capture to meet net zero’ promises. In contrast with carbon accounting gimmicks and similar offset schemes, the most effective policies are the ones that mark a clear break with fossil fuels. During the campaign, Biden clarified that while he did not support a fracking ban, he would phase out oil and gas drilling on public lands. While this is an absolutely necessary first step, it represents just a fraction of the drilling happening in the United States right now. 

The fact that Trump tried — and failed — to ride fears about a fracking ban to a second term should be encouraging to those of us who want to see real climate action before it’s too late. Now Trump’s obstinacy and ignorance is no longer an obstacle; it is time for Democratic leaders to fight for the kind of bold climate policies the world needs right now. 

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Wenonah Hauter is the founder and executive director of Food & Water Watch and Food & Water Action Fund. Wenonah has three decades of experience campaigning and writing on food, water, energy and environmental issues. She has trained and mentored hundreds of organizers and activists across the country and worked at the national, state and local levels to develop policy positions and legislative and field strategies to secure real wins for communities and the environment.
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