Energy & Environment

Fracking fight looms for Democrats

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Fracking and the environment are set to be one of the most contentious battlegrounds for allies of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as they seek to craft the Democratic Party’s platform for 2016.

Members of the platform committee will meet on Friday in Phoenix to hear testimony from several environmental organizations and activists.

{mosads}Clinton and Sanders clashed bitterly over hydraulic fracturing and fossil fuel production during the campaign, and both have appointed officials to the platform committee who share their views. With Clinton now the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for president, the Sanders camp is determined to win as many concessions in the platform is possible.

“I think it could be a tension point, but I think it’s a good tension point,” said Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica, who will testify before the committee this week. 

“Fracking is going to be one of those areas where there’s going to be a robust conversation. … It’s a complex issue. But I think having that discussed in an open and robust manner is good.”

Sanders appointed Bill McKibben, a strident climate change activist and author who co-founded the advocacy group, to the platform committee.

McKibben appeared at a press conference with Sanders last year when the senator rolled out a bill to end future fossil fuel development on federal land. Both have endorsed the “keep it in the ground” movement to stop fossil fuel development, and both support a national ban on fracking, a drilling technique that uses high-pressure water to extract oil and natural gas from rock. 

Clinton’s appointee, meanwhile, is Carol Browner, who led the Environmental Protection Agency under Bill Clinton and advised President Obama on environmental issues. She, like Clinton, has said the federal government should regulate fracking, which is well short of the ban that liberals like Sanders are seeking.

The Democrats’ platform in 2012 recognized climate change, but it also endorsed an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, a phrase that has come to be a coded endorsement of fossil fuel development alongside renewable and carbon-free energy. 

Greens expect stronger language against fossil fuels in the 2016 platform — the question is what it will look like.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a member of the platform committee and a Sanders supporter, said he “hopes” members will be able to come to a consensus on fracking and fossil fuels.

“Who knows?” he said of reconciling the two viewpoints

“We’ll see, but I think we’ll be doing well if we can acknowledge there are a whole lot of things [about fracking] we don’t know, and they are dangerous to the public health and we ought to take effective actions.”

Some of the differences between the Clinton and Sanders camps are more on strategy than on substance: Both candidates believe in climate change and have said they want to work toward deploying renewable energy. But the candidates differ on how quickly the energy shift should happen. 

McKibben and Browner were not available to comment for this story. But their interactions during the first platform committee meeting last week provide an early look at how the debate might unfold. 

When Janet Redman, the director of the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies, testified before the committee last week, McKibben indicated he supports moving more quickly on climate change matters. 

“Could you describe for the committee your sense of how urgent this problem is and really whether even the timeline laid out in [the Paris climate deal] is sufficient to help us meet the targets we addressed there?” he asked, noting the international community’s goal to keep the Earth from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius. 

Browner took a more nuanced position. She praised Obama’s climate rule for power plants and asked Redman what steps the next president could take to address climate change within the context of laws on the books. 

“I certainly argue with the need for renewables, but as we kind of look at where the law is today, the Clean Air Act, which the president has very successfully used to achieve measurable reductions, what would you do after power plants to continue that effort?” Browner said. 

Redman told The Hill she expects the committee will be able to find consensus between the two strategies: Clinton’s push to build on what Obama has done and Sanders’s call to do so very quickly.  

“There is no mutual exclusivity in those two statements. We can build on what Obama has promised … but we certainly have to go further than the commitment we’ve made there,” she said. 

The platform, she added, is “setting out a broader pathway. It’s not looking specifically at one policy that one administration has committed to, but it’s really charting the course over the next four years.”   

Sanders and his supporters see the platform as a way for him to influence the general election contest. The question is how much clout his platform committee members will have over the final document.

Anthony Rogers-Wright, a policy and organizing director at Environmental Action, noted that Democrats need the support of Sanders voters in the general election, as well as minority voters who view climate change as a major issue.  

“Sen. Sanders was very deliberate in picking very strong voices and personalities to be on that committee, to make sure that not only it is influenced but also that it is pushed to get a progressive agenda,” said Rogers-Wright, who is testifying before the committee on Friday. 

Regardless of the platform debate, Democrats say there is a gulf between their environmental views and those of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, who has called for more fossil fuel development and doubts the science behind climate change. 

That means Democrats will need to draw an even clearer distinction between what they support and what Trump stands for, Pica said.

“The Democratic Party has kind of an equally urgent task. With its acceptance of the climate science it has to actually then have policies that live up to the crisis we’re in,” he said. 

“A Democratic platform that is not robust in aggressively addressing climate change ends up being, itself, climate denialism.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Bill Clinton Donald Trump Hillary Clinton

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