America is ready for clean energy
The 2016 campaign season is like no other in recent memory for a lot of reasons. One of them is that an environmental issue—fracking—has gained unexpected prominence on the campaign trail because of the large and vocal ban-fracking movement. While in the past such topics were ignored, our dependence on fossil fuels and the fate of our climate are now top of mind for many voters, triggering local ballot initiatives in states like California and Colorado and heated exchanges from the leading presidential candidates.
Upon closer look, it’s not surprising that fracking has emerged as a key issue in 2016. Hydraulic fracturing now accounts for over 50% of the nation’s oil and natural gas output. At the same time, it risks the water we drink and the air we breathe. It endangers our health and communities, and worsens our climate crisis. At a time of great concern over economic inequality and corporate power, fracking pits Big Energy and Wall Street against local land owners and disadvantaged communities. This explains why, for the first time, more than half the country now opposes fracking.
Fracking came out of years of energy deregulation pursued by the industry: from the 1978 deregulation of natural gas pricing and pipeline oversight, to the 1989 repeal of all remaining gas pricing regulation, to the 1992 deregulation of the electricity market, to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which exempted fracking from basic protections provided by the Safe Drinking Water Act. Just this month, a judge cited the 2005 energy law as rationale for deeming any federal regulations on fracking on public lands to be unlawful. How could this have come to be?
Since at least the days of former Enron CEO Ken Lay, we’ve been told that natural gas is a “bridge fuel” to truly clean and renewable energy future. Lay’s rhetoric about the potential of electricity deregulation to spark a rapid transition to sustainable energy lured in big green groups like the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
Even today, politics promoting fracking for natural gas have seeped into the federal agency tasked with protecting our environment. A year ago, the EPA issued a highly-anticipated draft report on hydraulic fracturing impacts to our drinking water. When the nearly thousand-page study came out, the agency grandly concluded that the “[a]ssessment shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.” Not surprisingly, the oil and gas industry hailed the report as a sign of settled science. But the study was full of gaps and caveats, including the blatant omission of high-profile water contamination cases in Pavillion, Wyoming, Parker County, Texas and Dimock, Pennsylvania.
However, the truth is coming out. The EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) has determined that the agency’s industry-friendly summary findings were in fact “not adequately supported,” “do not clearly, concisely, and accurately describe the findings,” and are “ambiguous and appear inconsistent” with “significant data limitations and uncertainties.” The EPA—which has hewed to the “all of the above” enthusiasm for fracking throughout the Obama administration—is now exposed for running with the misleading topline. More recently, an independent study called contamination in North Dakota “widespread,” providing a damning counterpoint to the EPA.
Here’s the thing: the false choice between coal and natural gas still leaves us reliant on fossil fuels and invested in the infrastructure for fracking. As long as we permit offshore drilling in California and the Gulf of Mexico, are content with weak methane regulations and weak targets under the Clean Power Plan, and allow big new pipelines, we are locking in more drilling and fracking for oil and gas and delaying clean energy revolution.
The progress we have made towards renewable energy has been the result of regulatory and legislative changes for which advocates have fought. Five years ago, banning fracking in New York seemed impossible, but it became a reality in 2014. Maryland has followed by passing a moratorium, along with dozens of other jurisdictions across the country. Meanwhile, the cost of renewables has dropped considerably and states like California and Texas have increasingly brought on new solar and wind energy sources. But we must fight harder to accelerate such progress.