Are Democrats About to Fracture Over Fracking?

Environmental activists see opportunities ahead to pressure the party on what they see as a risky drilling practice.

People take part in a rally against hydraulic fracturing of natural gas wells at the Legislative Office Building in Albany, N.Y., on Monday, Jan. 23, 2012. About 600 people registered to lobby lawmakers Monday on various bills related to the technology known as "fracking." Many are pushing a bill that would ban fracking, which stimulates gas production by using chemically treated water to fracture shale. Others are supporting a bill putting a moratorium on shale gas development.
National Journal
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Alex Roarty
Aug. 17, 2013, 2 a.m.

Led by Pres­id­ent Obama, most Demo­crats have tried to oc­cupy a care­ful middle ground on the nat­ur­al-gas in­dustry that’s trans­form­ing the U.S. en­ergy eco­nomy. But that bal­ance might not last much longer, as en­vir­on­ment­ally con­scious “frackt­iv­ists” look for ways to press their case that the po­ten­tial for pol­lu­tion out­weighs the jobs cre­ated by the mush­room­ing shale-gas drilling in­dustry.

Nat­ur­al gas doesn’t re­ceive full-throated Demo­crat­ic back­ing like wind and sol­ar power do, but it doesn’t come un­der heavy fire like oil and coal, either. Obama, for in­stance, has called for hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing, or frack­ing, to be safe and care­fully mon­itored, but has nev­er pushed for fed­er­al re­stric­tions on it.

Some en­vir­on­ment­al lead­ers and so-called frackt­iv­ists are hope­ful the party will turn against the in­dustry. And they have some reas­on for op­tim­ism. Already, Demo­crat­ic gov­ernors and pres­id­en­tial pro­spects An­drew Cuomo and Mar­tin O’Mal­ley have up­held morator­i­ums on the con­tro­ver­sial pro­cess in New York and Mary­land, sug­gest­ing the is­sue could emerge as a po­tent one in a pres­id­en­tial primary. And this sum­mer, the Pennsylvania Demo­crat­ic State Com­mit­tee passed a res­ol­u­tion call­ing for all drilling to tem­por­ar­ily halt in the Key­stone State. The res­ol­u­tion was non­bind­ing, but it was non­ethe­less sig­ni­fic­ant in a state seen as ground zero for the coun­try’s nat­ur­al-gas boom and where Demo­crats have been friendly to the in­dustry.

However, any polit­ic­al shift with­in the Demo­crat­ic Party won’t come eas­ily. And many party in­siders and op­er­at­ives think it won’t come at all — be­cause the boom­ing in­dustry of­fers too many eco­nom­ic be­ne­fits to too many groups, in­clud­ing mem­bers of the Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion. In ad­di­tion, the en­vir­on­ment­al fal­lout, while a con­cern, doesn’t stir as much worry as that from oil and coal.

A sur­vey taken last fall by Muh­len­berg Col­lege in Al­lentown, Pa., and the Uni­versity of Michigan, shows that most Demo­crats view the in­dustry as a pos­sible eco­nom­ic life­line. Asked wheth­er nat­ur­al gas is im­port­ant to the state’s eco­nomy, 77 per­cent of Pennsylvania Demo­crats said it was some­what or very im­port­ant. Just 22 per­cent called it not very im­port­ant or not im­port­ant at all.

At first glance, Pennsylvania’s Demo­crat­ic gubernat­ori­al primary next year looks like a prime op­por­tun­ity for the party to swing left on nat­ur­al gas. Frack­ing is a ma­jor is­sue in the state’s polit­ics. Primar­ies are driv­en by the party’s base, which is friendly to en­vir­on­ment­al causes. And many of those voters live in or near Phil­adelphia, the one re­gion of the state that hasn’t be­nefited eco­nom­ic­ally from the nat­ur­al-gas boom. On top of all that, two of the can­did­ates, John Hanger and Katie Mc­Ginty, are former heads of the Pennsylvania En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion De­part­ment.

But op­er­at­ives con­nec­ted to many of the cam­paigns pre­dict the cam­paigns won’t veer left on nat­ur­al gas. The polit­ics of op­pos­ing frack­ing are com­plic­ated, even with­in the Demo­crat­ic Party, they say, be­cause most Demo­crats be­lieve it brings jobs that are worth the en­vir­on­ment­al risk. “The flip side to ap­peas­ing the en­vir­on­ment­al lobby is that you open your­self up to get­ting roas­ted on killing jobs in Pennsylvania,” said one Demo­crat work­ing one of the cam­paigns.

The front-run­ner in the race, Rep. Allyson Schwartz, has already pub­licly op­posed the state party’s morator­i­um res­ol­u­tion. Few ex­pect oth­er con­tenders for the nom­in­a­tion, in­clud­ing Hanger, Mc­Ginty, State Treas­urer Rob Mc­Cord, or busi­ness­man Tom Wolf, to take a stand in sharp op­pos­i­tion to the in­dustry. The Demo­crat­ic con­tenders will talk a lot about be­ing sure to reg­u­late the in­dustry and levy­ing lar­ger taxes on it, said Chris Bor­ick, a pro­fess­or and poll­ster at Muh­len­berg, but they won’t go fur­ther.

“They’ll tep­idly sup­port frack­ing in the state, say­ing it can provide a lot of eco­nom­ic be­ne­fit to the state,” he said. “They’ll also tout its en­vir­on­ment­al ad­vant­ages “¦ in terms of it be­ing bet­ter for cli­mate change than oth­er fossil fuels like coal.”

Tra­di­tion­al mem­bers of the Demo­crat­ic Party back the in­dustry, not just in Pennsylvania but around the coun­try. Among them are uni­ons that stand to be­ne­fit from build­ing the pipelines. And ab­sent an en­vir­on­ment­al cata­strophe con­nec­ted to frack­ing, most main­stream Demo­crat­ic voters haven’t taken enough no­tice. Even Demo­crat­ic lead­ers in deep blue, en­vir­on­ment­ally con­scious states, like Cali­for­nia Gov. Jerry Brown, have signaled they want to al­low frack­ing.

“For the first time in my memory, you have a real live is­sue where en­vir­on­ment­al­ists are lined up on one side, and pretty much the en­tire rest of the Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion is lined up the oth­er side,” said Matt McK­enna, an en­ergy lob­by­ist for MWR strategies.

The 2016 primary might of­fer a bet­ter chance for en­vir­on­ment­al­ists to change the polit­ics with­in the Demo­crat­ic Party. Un­like Pennsylvania, voters in Iowa, New Hamp­shire, and oth­er primary states don’t be­ne­fit eco­nom­ic­ally the same way those in Pennsylvania do. O’Mal­ley and Cuomo — two of the pres­id­en­tial race’s likely strong con­tenders should there be a primary fight — have already delayed al­low­ing frack­ing in their states, so it’s an is­sue that’s already on the table.

“I’m not of the view that go­ing in­to 2016, the en­tire Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion and base of the party is really ‘We’re happy with where we are on en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues.’ I guar­an­tee that’s not the case,” said Mark Longabaugh, a Demo­crat­ic strategist with close ties to the party’s en­vir­on­ment­al move­ment. He pre­dicted that a Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate could push for an out­right na­tion­wide ban on frack­ing. “In the run-up to 2016, you may see can­did­ates emerge push­ing the party farther out there,” Longabaugh said.

The Pennsylvania gov­ernor’s race will of­fer a tem­plate for na­tion­al can­did­ates who want to move in that dir­ec­tion, but it will high­light the risks as well.

Cor­rec­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this story misid­en­ti­fied the gov­ernor of New York.

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