Banning Fracking is a Political Winner

February 5, 2020
 Climate Democracy

Conventional wisdom says anti-fracking Democrats will lose swing states. But facts say otherwise.

When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a statewide ban on fracking in 2014, only one US senator – Bernie Sanders – supported a ban.  

Things have changed dramatically since then. Maryland and Washington state have banned fracking, and many more senators — including Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Jeff Merkley — are supporting a ban on fracking.

There’s one simple explanation for this shift: the growing recognition that we need to move rapidly off fossil fuels to avoid the worst of the climate crisis. That means stopping dangerous drilling and embarking on a rapid, just transition to 100% renewable energy.

But lately there has been a lot of hand-wringing in the media saying that supporting a fracking ban will hurt Democrats in the general election – especially in heavily fracked battleground states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. The evidence says otherwise. 

In fact, recent polling and electoral data clearly shows that support for a fracking ban is a political winner. Democratic presidential candidates would be wise to support a fracking ban as part of a Green New Deal to move America off fossil fuels and onto 100% renewable energy.

First, Democrats (and Independents) don’t like fracking.

National polling shows Democrats overwhelmingly oppose fracking. According to a poll commissioned by Data for Progress in September 2019: 

  • 63% of Democrats supported a fracking ban
  • Only 19% opposed a ban
  • Among independent voters, 44% supported a fracking ban – a plurality of those surveyed, including many who are eligible to vote in certain Democratic primaries

In another September poll from AP/NORC, just 9% of Democrats and 16% of independents supported increased fracking. 

Fracking is particularly unpopular in critical primary states. Take a look at California, the biggest Super Tuesday prize: Polling in 2016 by PPIC showed that 69% of Democrats and 61% of independents oppose increased fracking. Governor Gavin Newsom campaigned in 2018 on a platform opposing fracking, and a fracking ban passed in oil-producing Monterey County by a 56% to 44% margin despite massive spending by the fossil fuel industry.

Then there’s the primary in Florida, a state where activists are pushing to ban fracking. A 2019 survey by Florida Atlantic University found that 61% of Democrats support a fracking ban. Meanwhile, even right-wing Governor Ron DeSantis campaigned in support of a ban.

But fracking is popular in swing states… right? Not really. 

Conventional wisdom suggests that voters in swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio are enthusiastic backers of fracking. This is simply not the case. A new poll from Franklin & Marshall of registered voters in Pennsylvania found 48% support a ban on fracking, while 39% oppose it. 

The same survey finds 49% of Pennsylvanians say that the negative environmental impacts of gas drilling are not worth the supposed economic benefits. That’s up from 33% just a few years ago. The same survey in 2018 found that 69 percent of state residents think Pennsylvania should prioritize renewable energy; just 18 percent wanted to prioritize coal and gas. 

A similar dynamic exists in Florida, the largest swing state with the most electoral votes up for grabs. While the poll cited above found that a fracking ban is overwhelmingly popular among Democrats, a third of Floridians who voted for Trump also support a ban.

Of course there is no firm evidence that a candidate’s position on fracking would be a dealbreaker for voters. But even the industry’s preferred argument — “fracking delivers jobs to hard-hit regions” — is undermined by the hundreds of jobs drilling companies have axed in Pennsylvania in recent months due to fracking’s plummeting profitability. 

Anti-fracking candidates in Pennsylvania are winning. 

The most serious blow to conventional wisdom about fracking’s role in elections comes from simply looking at recent results. A series of recent local races across Pennsylvania support the argument that standing strong against fossil fuels can be a winner.

CASE IN POINT

Summer Lee, Elizabeth Fiedler, and Danielle Otten are progressive champions running for the Pennsylvania legislature.
           Summer Lee, Elizabeth Fiedler, and Danielle Otten.

In 2018, anti-fracking candidates Summer Lee, Sara Innamorato and Elizabeth Fiedler won their state legislative races. 

And the communities fighting the Mariner East pipelines in Chester County took their movement to the ballot box, flipping a key Republican-held state legislative district by electing Danielle Friel Otten to represent the 155th District. 

These candidates all won competitive races or Democratic primaries, unseating incumbents who were unwilling to take on the powerful fracking industry.

The 2019 elections delivered more evidence of this trend. An intense battle over a plan to lease a park for drilling in the Republican-leaning Pittsburgh suburb of Franklin Park led anti-fracking Democratic candidates to run for seats on the City Council; three of four succeeded. The same thing occurred in East Pittsburgh, where a proposal to build a fracking well at a local steel mill has drawn intense community opposition.

Fracking isn’t just a political ‘wedge issue.’

Aside from the political outcomes of banning fracking, it remains clear that fracking has been disastrous for the communities bearing the public health consequences of drilling. Fracking contaminates drinking water, and takes a much heavier toll on water resources than previously thought: A Duke University team found that water use per well had increased dramatically—as much as 770 percent—and the amount of toxic wastewater produced by drilling was also on the rise.

The impacts of fracking go much deeper. Physicians for Social Responsibility and Concerned Health Professionals of New York recently compiled the sixth edition of their compendium summarizing the findings from hundreds of different research projects, bolstering the conclusion that fracking is a threat to our air, water and climate.

In southwest Pennsylvania, an outbreak of rare, deadly childhood cancers has become a major concern, with families and advocacy groups demanding that Governor Tom Wolf probe the possible connection to gas drilling in the area. Plus, the recent blockbuster report by Justin Noble in Rolling Stone documents the serious health threats posed by radioactive drilling waste, especially in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Drilling backers insist employment should be the only metric considered for fracking’s impact. But according to a new study, costs from premature deaths and climate harm clearly outweigh the economic benefits. 

The climate crisis is a key issue for voters, making fracking a serious liability.

An increasing number of voters consider climate a top priority. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found over 70% of Democrats think this crisis demands immediate action; almost 50% of independents felt the same way. And a Pew survey this year found that two-thirds of Democrats say climate should be a top priority for the next president; only 46% said the same four years ago.

Surveys also show strong support for taking bold action. A March 2019 Data For Progress poll showed that 59% of Americans support a Green New Deal, with only 29% opposed. A more recent NPR/Marist poll found 63% support the Green New Deal. Notably, candidates that have advocated a ban on fracking have done so as part of broader plans for a Green New Deal. 

The link between fracking and climate change is crystal clear—and the evidence keeps piling up. While carbon dioxide emissions from coal have been going down, emissions from methane, the primary component of natural gas, have been rising so fast over the past several years that they have essentially negated coal’s decline. Fracking isn’t a bridge to clean energy — it’s deepening our dependence on climate-wrecking fossil fuels.

Smart political leaders should easily see that seeking to ban fracking is a win with voters.

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