Energy & Environment

Sanders injects fracking into battle for NY

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Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has a new line of attack against Hillary Clinton tailor-made for New York voters: that she is too soft on hydraulic fracturing. 

Sanders has taken a firmer line against the drilling practice than the Democratic front-runner, calling for it to be banned nationwide.

{mosads}He highlighted his fracking stance in an ad released this week, putting the issue front and center as he seeks to make up ground ahead of the crucial New York primary next week, which will award 247 delegates.

Green advocates say the anti-fracking message could resonate in the state, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has banned fracking and polls show most voters oppose the practice.

“There’s a significant infrastructure of people [in New York] that care about the environment, that understand hydraulic fracturing is extremely bad for the planet,” said Tara Houska, the national campaign director of Honor the Earth and a national adviser to the Sanders campaign on Native American affairs.

Environmentalists warn that fracking techniques, which involve injecting chemcial mixtures into rock at high pressures to release oil and gas reserves, can damage drinking water supplies and contribute to global warming by allowing more fossil fuel extraction. 

Clinton, a former senator from New York, has taken a nuanced approach to fracking, calling for more regulations on the industry. She supports local control over individual fracking projects, including Cuomo’s 2014 ban.

Clinton “believes we need to make sure America becomes the world’s clean energy superpower, creating new jobs and industries while reducing carbon pollution and fighting climate change,” the Clinton
campaign said in a statement to The Hill. “She supports New York’s ban on fracking and will stand with any community or state that decides they don’t want to allow fracking in their backyards.”

Sanders has been more unequivocal. At a March debate, he said, “No, I do not support fracking,” and he has attacked Clinton as promoting the growth of fracking as secretary of State.

The Sanders campaign has also highlighted oil industry donations to Clinton to question her commitment to environmental issues.

“Over time she has supported corporate interests,” Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said Monday on MSNBC. “She still supports fracking. It’s not surprising that the oil industry, Greenpeace said, that her campaign and her super-PACs have received $4.5 million from oil interests and oil lobbyists. That’s because she supports fracking.”

Clinton has shot back that oil industry donations are just a small part of her overall fundraising. In a heated encounter with a Greenpeace advocate last week, she accused the Sanders campaign of lying about her support from the fossil fuel industry.

Local activists say Sanders can gain an edge over Clinton by keeping up his vocal opposition to fracking.

“She had a very long, nuanced answer, and Sen. Sanders simply said no,” said Anthony Rogers-Wright, a policy and organizing director at Environmental Action, which hasn’t endorsed a candidate.

“I think even [environmental groups that endorsed Clinton] still would concede that Sen. Sanders’s plan is much better than a nuanced plan that uses code words like ‘a safe way to frack’ and ‘regulated fracking.’ ”

Still, polls indicate the Vermont senator is facing an uphill climb in New York, with multiple polls giving Clinton a double-digit lead.

Should Clinton win big in the state, it could thwart Sanders’s momentum, expand her delegate lead and bolster her argument that she’s on track to wrap up the nomination.

But the polls have been wrong before, and the Sanders campaign is fighting hard.

The Sanders team hosted a climate rally with about 1,000 supporters in New York last weekend. The rally, Rogers-Wright said, was designed to stir up interest in the Democratic primary among the anti-fracking grassroots network in the state.

“It is a beautiful example of a grassroots coalition,” he said. “It’s so organic, but it’s super organized.”

Anti-fracking forces in New York are more organized than elsewhere in the country. Community groups popped up several years ago to oppose drilling and fracked gas infrastructure projects in the state and worked to win over New Yorkers and government officials to the cause. 

The activists commissioned studies and held forums on fracking, telling residents about the risks to “our food, our water, our property,” said Kim Fraczek, co-director of the state’s Sane Energy Project group.

Other lobbying efforts focused heavily on Cuomo, Rogers-Wright said, including picketing his appearances around the state and pushing him to reject fracking. Cuomo did so in late 2014, calling the drilling practice a threat to public health. 

After Cuomo banned fracking, a Quinnipiac poll found 55 percent of New Yorkers supported the move, compared to 25 percent who were opposed. 

“You have a clear example in New York state of the power of bottom-up organizing,” said Patrick Robbins, another Sane Energy Project co-director.

Sanders’s campaign is looking to tap into that grassroots energy to boost his New York campaign.

“I think Bernie’s answer — ‘my answer is a lot simpler’ — that speaks volumes about who this candidate is and what he stands for,” Houska said. “He takes a position, and he really truly believes it, and he’s not willing to make an exception to that rule.”

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