The Democratic Party Didn’t Pass a Ban on Fracking—But They Came Very Close

John Collins

Day 2 of the Democratic National Convention's platform meeting in Orlando, Florida, July 9, 2016.

Over the weekend, at a hotel in Orlando, Fla., the Democratic Party’s two factions met to debate how progressive they want the party to be. You too can watch all of the DNC’s Platform Committee Meeting here, but one particularly interesting exchange on fracking stands out.

Thoughout the day, Bernie Sanders’ revolution-minded progressives clashed with Hillary Clinton’s be-careful-with-the-applecart followers over everything from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, minimum wage, single-payer health care, marijuana decriminalization and the environment. Considering the level of discourse taking place simultaneously in Baton Rouge, clashed” might be too strong a word. But before party compromises were agreed upon, there were some tears, boos and walk-outs.

When it came to fracking, the exchange was raucous. Like Sanders, who made a ban on hydraulic fracturing a central part of his environmental policy, many of his supporters believe that the recent natural gas boom isn’t worth the flammable drinking water, earthquakes and climate change that come with it. Hillary Clinton, whose postions on fracking are more nuanced”, appears nowhere near as comfortable saying adios to a lucrative swath of the early 21st century energy industry.

At the Platform Committee meeting, the task of conveying the high stakes of fracking went to Josh Fox — the Oscar-nominated filmmaker of Gasland and noted fractivist. Fox knew that Democrats wouldn’t adopt his fracking ban amendment, but he gave this speech to the committee anyway:

There is a political revolution going on in this country. And fracking has no place in it. In fact, a lot of it is because of fracking. Because Americans have had enough of being abused by the oil and gas industry in our own backyard.

I am a member of a frontline community in the Delaware River Basin. We have a moratorium on fracking. I live one mile from New York State. We have a ban on fracking due to public health concerns. 

They told us we would never have a ban on fracking, but people rose up and people did not quit and for eight years we badgered every politician in the state and we won that battle, and we can win it here. 

Why would we support a ban on fracking in all those places and not extend that across the nation? Are the children and people of the state of New York better somehow? Deserving of more protection? Have better science somehow? Or immune to volatile organic compounds and carcinogens pumped into our water tables, than the rest of the United States? I don’t think so.

This government has been coopted by the natural gas industry for far too long, and we are here to take it back. So I request that a ban on fracking is in this platform.

Josh Fox, filmmaker and activist, addresses the Democratic platform committee. (Image: C-SPAN)

This introduction was met with loud applause and Fox was granted 5 additional minutes to continue making the case for a moratorium. He used the opportunity to explain how he personally went from discovering what fracking was to documenting the people and communities left in the industry’s destructive wake:

When the frack gas industry first came to my house, and they asked me to lease my land for fracking — something that nobody in 2008 had ever really heard about and there was no science on it — they came to me and said, No it’s just a fire hydrant in the middle of your field, it’s going to be fine. No problems. No worries.” But I heard that that project was started by Dick Cheney, so I had a few suspicions. So I went around the country and reported on it. I made two films—Gasland and Gasland Part 2—one of them was nominated for an Oscar. They went all over the country reporting on the problems of fracking — water contamination, air pollution, a public health crisis everywhere the industry goes, land scarring, the contamination of our government through the buying of our public officials on every level — state, federal and local. This is an abomination and a horror. And at that moment I’d never felt more alone in my entire life. 

Everyone in this room knows what it feels like to be alone in the face of huge opposition. Every person in this room knows what it’s like to face down an enemy that is gigantic, that is so big that you can’t even comprehend it. But a friend of mine in Arkansas says never look at the size of the enemy. Never ever, ever, ever think about the size of the enemy because you’ll lose. All across America we have huge victories against fracking — all across the world. There’s a ban on fracking in France, a ban on fracking in Germany, a ban on fracking in the Netherlands, a ban on fracking in parts of Australia and in South Africa. Because all across the world people acknowledge that this process is fatally flawed, it cannot be corrected, there are too many problems to it. 

So what happened across America? People organized and they rose up. People like Amy Ellsworth, who was showering in the dark in Colorado, because her water was explosive and she was so afraid that a spark from her light bulb would blow up her bathroom that she was showering in the dark. I can imagine her standing there, naked and terrified … but something happened. 

Or in Arkansas, where they had a thousand earthquakes in one month, in one town. In Guy Arkansas, a woman named Susan Frye attached a plumb bob to her coffee table and every time a microquake came along, she would look at the earthquake website and say there was another one.” And then a 4.7 came along and knocked her husband out of his La-Z-Boy chair. And I imagine, as he hit the ground, something happened to him. 

Or the G family, in Pennsylvania, that had a 5 well horizontal pad 150 feet from my friend Jeremiah G’s mother’s bedroom window. Their pond was contaminated, their water was flammable. And they had to sign a nondisclosure agreement, giving away their first amendment rights, just to get out of Gasland. And I imagine, as they closed the door for the last time and figured out they didn’t have to lock it, something happened to them. 

Seventeen million Americans live within one mile of a frack gas well. And you know where they live? They live in swing states. They live in Pennsylvania. They live in Ohio. They live in Michigan. They live in North Carolina. They live in Florida. That’s right! They live in New Mexico. They live in Colorado. Do you want me to go on? Do you want, as the Democratic Party, to sacrifice those two to three percentage points in every state? Do you want to give away those votes? Because these are single-issue voters. They will not vote to frack their own backyards. They won’t do it. We are not giving away those votes. We need our Democratic Party back. We do not want to lose in November. We don’t.

And now a new horror visited on the American people — frack gas power plants being proposed all across this nation, 300 of them. And we know that frack gas is the worst fuel that we can develop for climate change. The single worst. Worse even than our previous worst fuel: coal. Coal is an awful, awful fuel but the natural gas industry came, and they lied, and they said, We’re better.” But we know now that because of all the methane leakage, and the CO2, that the total emissions profile of frack gas is worse. It’s worse. It will heat the planet faster and it will bring us past our stated goals of the Paris Climate Accords of two degrees. 

Do you know what happens when we go past two degrees? We have five to nine meters of sea level rise. That would sink New York, Washington, D.C., Baltimore — half of this state — Oakland, Berkley. What are we fighting for? I am fighting for New York. I am fighting for Philadelphia. I am fighting for Washington, D.C. I am fighting for our major eastern coastal cities. We can’t have those 300 frack gas power plants. We can’t have them if we also want to have the East Coast. That’s what the science says. 

That is why we need a ban on fracking. 

The room cheered again and chants peaked the microphones. Reading the vibe on CSPAN, one would have expected the crowd to vote in energetic favor of a complete ban. They didn’t. Next at bat was Trevor Houser, a partner with the Rhodium Group and Clinton supporter, who had the unenviable task of following Fox’s passionate speech with a party-line, Debbie-downer moment, packaged as an economic reality check, in which he made a slightly Scott Walker sounding case for jobs that implied an ultimate confidence in extractive industry safety measures.

Something tells me I’m not going to be as popular as Josh Fox was,” said Houser, before pleading with the room to hear him out:

So my view is this: The same water pollution concerns, methane concerns, seismicity concerns that you all care about — I believe we can solve those without overnight cutting off two-thirds of all natural gas supply in this country, pushing us back to coal, and threatening the livelihoods of millions of union households many of whom also live in battleground states. 

Houser unequivocally praised the EPA and drew parallels to past victories that, in his view, successfully mediated environmental regulation and the economy:

When we had air pollution from steel production in Pittsburg, the response was not let’s ban steel production.” We effectively reduced the pollution from steel production and we can do the same thing here….At least we should try first. At least we should try before throwing millions of union households under the bus. We at least owe them that.

Trevor Houser makes the case against a fracking moratorium. (Image: C-SPAN) 

In the end, Fox withdrew the ban amendment and the Democratic Party agreed on the following compromise:

Secondary Amendment to Amendment 41:

Democrats are committed to closing the Halliburton loophole that stripped the Environmental Protection Agency of its ability to regulate hydraulic fracturing, and ensuring tough safeguards are in place, including Safe Drinking Water provisions, to protect local water supplies. We believe hydraulic fracturing should not take place where states and local communities oppose it. We will reduce methane emissions from all oil and gas production and transportation by at least 40-45% below 2005 levels by 2025 through common-sense standards for both new and existing sources and by repairing and replacing thousands of miles of leaky pipes. This will both protect our climate and create thousands of good-paying jobs.

Though this policy falls short of the total ban on fracking that Sanders and his supporters called for (and will continue to fight for), his campaign website celebrated the compromise as the most aggressive plan to combat climate change in the history of the party” and a huge overall win:

The accord commits Democrats to fight for a price on carbon, methane and other greenhouse gases and for massive investment in renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.

It will also further advance the goals of the grassroots environmental movement by applying the formula that was used to evaluate and ultimately oppose the Keystone XL pipeline to all future fossil fuel pipeline projects. All federal decision making should look at the proposal’s impact on the climate, according to the new platform language.

And perhaps most importantly:

While the plan does not ban fracking nationally as Sanders has called for, it will significantly limit fracking by forcing companies to disclose the chemicals they pump into the ground by eliminating the Halliburton Loophole. It also protects the right of states and localities to ban fracking.

The right for communities to decide whether extraction takes place is a big deal. Many activists, including Thomas Linzey, the co-founder of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), believe reasserting local democratic control is the best antidote to out-of-control corporate influence. No matter what happens, as policy debates continue, it’s clear why Sanders has stayed in this race. Meanwhile, the Republicans met in Cleveland on Monday to begin hammering out the particulars of their own platform. I‘ll report on that next.

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John Collins is the editor of Rural America In These Times. He lives between Minneapolis and La Pointe, Wisconsin, a village on Madeline Island in Lake Superior.
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