DENVER — President Trump and Joseph R. Biden have been talking about fracking on the campaign trail, but it’s about more than hydraulic fracturing. They’re talking about the future of U.S. energy.
The engineering feat that transformed a nation once dependent upon the Middle East into the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas has become shorthand for the debate over whether America continues to ride the fossil fuel wave or shuts it down in the name of climate change.
Making the shale revolution possible was fracking, an extractive technology invented in the 1940s that injects a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals into underground rock formations to release the oil and gas embedded within.
“We can’t do it without fracking,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance oil and gas trade association. “Over 90% of the wells in the United States are fracked now. We have very few conventional resources, the Gulf of Mexico being one example. Otherwise, everything has to be fracked.”
With conventional oil fields, such as those in Saudi Arabia, “you poke that straw into the ground and it flows naturally,” she said. “But you poke that straw into the shale, because the shale is very nonporous. It won’t flow without fracking.”
As Republicans cheer America’s long-sought energy independence and Democrats and environmental groups seek to move beyond the shale revolution to a green-energy future, hydraulic fracturing has risen to the campaign forefront.
Mr. Trump has embraced fracking. Mr. Biden says he would not ban fracking but would prohibit it on public lands and seek to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, which would mean replacing coal, oil and natural gas with renewable energy sources, rendering fracking obsolete.
“Nobody’s going to build another coal-fired plant in America. No one’s going to build another oil-fired [plant] in America,” Mr. Biden said at Tuesday’s presidential debate. “They’re going to move to renewable energy.”
Meanwhile, the president has wielded the fracking issue as a cudgel, especially in swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, where hydraulic fracturing in the oil-and-gas rich Marcellus Shale has driven an economic boom.
“Biden reiterated his pledge to require net-zero carbon emissions,” Mr. Trump said at a rally last week in Pittsburgh. “That’s basically saying, do you know what that is? There’ll be no more oil, there’ll be no more gas, there’ll be no more nothing, there’ll be no more industry, there’ll be no more country. That’s what it’s saying really.
“And that would instantly shut down fracking and mining immediately in Pennsylvania, sending your jobs overseas, sending your money to somebody else, not you.”
Mr. Biden has countered by promising his clean energy transformation would create millions of jobs with a massive infrastructure overhaul, including retrofitting 4 million buildings, replacing gas-fueled cars with electric vehicles and ending the electrical grid’s dependence on fossil fuels.
Mr. Biden’s Clean Energy Revolution and Climate Justice plan comes with a price tag of $2 trillion, but he said it would “pay for itself as we move forward.”
“We can get to net zero in terms of energy production by 2035,” Mr. Biden said. “Not only not costing people jobs, [but] creating jobs.”
While Mr. Trump has painted his Democratic opponent’s plan as a radical job-killer, Mr. Biden is a centrist compared with many in his party, including his running mate Sen. Kamala D. Harris, California Democrat, who called during the primary for a fracking ban.
Mr. Biden didn’t help himself during the Democratic primary by muddying his position. In March, he declared “no new fracking,” which his campaign later said referred to new drilling on public lands, but he has since insisted that “I am not banning fracking.”
Democratic strategist Rick Ridder said he believed most voters don’t see Mr. Biden as an anti-fracking kind of guy.
“The Trump campaign is obviously trying to push that Joe Biden is anti-fracking because so many of the other Democratic contenders were opposed to fracking,” Mr. Ridder said. “And so they’re trying to lump them in. But I don’t think they’ve been very successful at that.”
He added that “Joe Biden is perceived by most voters in every focus group I’ve ever done as sort of a moderate Democrat, and so therefore suggesting he would ban fracking, they don’t believe it.”
Mr. Biden also faces intense pressure on the left from the environmental movement, starting with San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer, a former Democratic presidential primary candidate and top party fundraiser.
“That’s what Biden’s struggle is: how to worry about jobs in the gas and oil industry in Pennsylvania, and at the same time keep his environmental constituency,” said Floyd Ciruli, director of the University of Denver Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research. “Tom Steyer is one of his top fundraisers and campaigners, and has been for several months, and so he’s got Steyer right on his shoulder.”
In addition, polls show that voters are split on fracking, even in Pennsylvania. A CBS/YouGov poll released last month showed 52% of Pennsylvania voters oppose fracking and 48% support it. Then again, a Cook Political Report/Kaiser poll taken in November found 57% opposed a fracking ban.
Also fueling the issue’s profile is California, which leads the nation in transitioning to green energy — and was forced in August to implement more power shutdowns as electricity demand exceeded supply.
“You can’t wave a magic wand and say all energy needs to come from wind and solar because then you get California and rolling blackouts,” Ms. Sgamma said. “So I do think people have connected the dots and understand that energy is important, which is why the issue has risen to that level.”
Renewable energy accounts for 19% of electricity production, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
Environmentalists have argued that fracking is unsafe, which the industry denies, and incompatible with the push to lower atmospheric greenhouse gases to avoid a “climate crisis.”
“The corporations that hype fracking are trying to lock us into a dirty future powered by fossil fuels. It’s a future that leads to more gas plants, more leaky pipelines, more compressor stations, more processing plants, and more dangerous storage facilities,” said Food & Water Watch. “We know the only way toward a clean, renewable energy future is to ban fracking and to stop all new fossil fuel development.”
Industry supporters point out that the shale revolution has been credited with reducing U.S. emissions by driving the replacement of coal with natural gas, which emits fewer greenhouse gases, at power plants.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration said Wednesday that U.S. emissions fell by 2.8% in 2019, part of a long-term trend that has seen the nation’s carbon emissions fall by 14.5% since 2007.
Even though the reductions lead the developed world, they are still a far cry from net-zero emissions, which is increasingly the standard championed by Democrats. The Green New Deal resolution proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calls for net-zero carbon emissions by 2030.
The New York Democrat heads the Biden campaign climate task force, leading to speculation that Mr. Biden, if elected, may renege on his promise not to ban fracking under pressure from the left.
“The primaries are over, and right now what is most important is to make sure that we ensure a Democratic victory in November and that we continue to push Vice President Biden on issues from marijuana to climate change to foreign policy,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said in a Sept. 17 interview with Just the News.
She has co-sponsored the Fracking Ban Act in Congress with Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, but if net-zero becomes the standard, such measures may not be necessary.
“Fracking may become one of those things that we remember from the past, simply because we have alternative energy,” Mr. Ridder said. “It may fade away.”
Ms. Sgamma said she believes Americans are too smart to buy the great leap forward into a green-energy utopia.
“Until there’s actually an alternative that does everything oil, gas and coal do, going to net-zero means we’re all poorer, we can’t travel, we can’t turn on the electricity. There’s just not an alternative right now that does everything oil, gas and coal do 24/7,” she said. “We can wish there was, but there’s not. And California provides a cautionary example that a lot of people aren’t heeding.”