What the Frack? Why Waste Political Capital on a Pyrrhic Victory?

October 13, 2020

If Democrats take control of the government in 2021, a big question is how much the party should partner with Republicans and the private sector to put a climate plan in place. A. Aton

These days American politics are a little like Russian nesting dolls—there are stories, within stories, within stories. With just 22 days, 07 hours, and 30 minutes left until the November elections and Biden’s rising poll numbers, I’ve begun thinking in earnest about the chances of getting his $2 trillion[i] climate plan—or a reasonable facsimile— through Congress and back on the presidential desk for his signature. How Biden and progressive climate activists deal with fracking in the coming months could largely determine the possibility of putting the nation squarely on the path to long-term sustainability. I fear that too great a focus on fracking bans outside of federal lands—which is the current Biden position—could cancel the possibility of putting in place the government policies needed to decarbonize the economy in a timely fashion.

As I will explain in a moment, the way forward need not force a binary vote on fracking. How is this possible? By doing what governments have always done best—kicking the can down the road—at least on this one issue. It may not be optimum, but it is likely to happen in a much shorter time than waiting for political forces finally to resolve.

First off, to have any chance of that happening depends upon the Democrats keeping the House and flipping the Senate. All are well within the realm of possibilities. Should the Senate remain in the hands of Republicans, the nation would be looking at another two to four years of virtual gridlock and not just in the area of climate policy.

Ill feelings run deep these days, and any pretense of bipartisan cooperation has been cast aside.

Absent a deus ex machina or call to war against a common foreign enemy, it is difficult to conceive of any scenario in which a Republican Senate and a Democratic House and administration would work together to put an aggressive climate defense plan into motion. We already know what it means for the environment with a Democratic House, a Republican Senate, and Trump in the White House. It hurts me to write that. However, as President Trump likes to say–it is what it is.

For purposes of this discussion, let’s assume a Democratic sweep on election day. In which case, the climate-question of the hour would be: what would stop them from turning the Biden plan into law? In a word–themselves!

Over the years, Democrats have proven particularly adept at getting in their own way. The last time they controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, they were not quite capable of transformative action. To their credit, they included within the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) billions of dollars for clean energy and energy efficiency in the form of tax credits, loan guarantees, federal program funds, and block grants to state and local governments.

The ARRA, however, could hardly be considered transformative, i.e., in keeping with the spirit of either the Green New Deal (GND) or Biden’s plan. What would have worn the label well was the American Clean Energy and Leadership Act (ACES)—popularly referred to as Waxman-Markey.

Had ACES become law, it would—among other things— have capped national greenhouse gas emissions, established a carbon trading system, and set a national renewable energy standard. Although passed by the House, the bill died never having made it past then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on to the Senate floor for a vote. Yes, the Harry Reid that over 200 federal judges and at least two Supreme Court justices have to thank for needing only the approval of a simple majority of the Senate to make it onto the federal bench.

One of the most quoted phrases uttered by the Trump in the first debate with the former Vice President was: you just lost the left. He had prefaced the statement with the charge that Biden made a deal with Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on climate change.

Trump deliberately used the term manifesto—rather than the Green New Deal—to describe Biden’s pact with the devil Senator. The label is consistent with his efforts to paint progressive Democrats like Representative Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Warren (D-MA) as the leading edge of a red menace that’s waiting in the wings to take over the nation. To hear Trump tell it, turkeys won’t be the only things stuffed in November.

Suburban mothers—lock up the ballot boxes—the commies are coming!

Unsurprisingly Biden disagreed with Trump’s interpretation of events—reminding him he had his own plan for combating climate change and transforming the economy. It was a claim reiterated by Senator Harris in the vice-presidential debate.

Whatever I or anyone else may think of President Trump, he is very adept at causing and profiting from chaos. If there’s a goat to be got, he usually gets it—making his current failure to create discord between moderate and progressive Democrats all the more extraordinary.

Their steadfastness in circling the wagons is a testament to how unified Democrats have become in the Trumpian era. The differences within the Democratic Party pale in comparison to those between Democrats and Trump-Republicans (Trumplicans). They are not alone in their opposition to Trump.

As the nation witnessed during the Democratic convention and over the last several months, establishment Republicans like former Ohio governor Kasich, the organizing members of the Lincoln Project, and senior members of previous Republican administrations have been crossing over–in droves— in support of Biden.

Like the Democrats, many establishment Republicans appear to believe Trump threatens to undermine the foundations of American democracy, i.e., the Constitution, free and open elections, and the peaceful transfer of power—to say nothing of their political hides. Of all the tasks before them, winning the election may prove the easiest for the Democrats to accomplish.

The critical challenge that Biden and Harris will face in the wake of a November victory is keeping the coalition that defeated Trump together long enough to accomplish more in the realm of climate legislation than rescinding his executive orders?

The past quarter-century of inter and intra-party politics suggests the accord between moderate and progressive Democrats is more a short-term convenience than a long-term commitment. Perhaps the most telling sign of this is the willingness of progressives to challenge party incumbents in the primaries.

There is little evidence suggesting that establishment Republicans are looking to do more than take back their party from the Trumplicans. It is assuming, of course, there is still a party to take back. It may be an assumption too far.

There’s a weariness in the land caused by the rancor and hyperpartisanship now tainting everything from science to religion and from the beans we buy to the versions of history our children are taught. In recent months the practice of medicine has become indistinguishable from that of politics.

The last questions in the vice-presidential debate were asked by Brecklynn Brown, one of the winners in the statewide essay contest by the Utah State Board of Education and the Utah Debate Commission.

Ms. Brown, an eighth-grader from Springville Junior High, wrote:

When I watch the news, all I see are two candidates from opposing parties trying to tear each other down. If our leaders can’t get along, how are the citizens supposed to get along?

Nothing is going to change until someone breaks this trend of arguments and anger. (emphasis added)

Nowhere are the conflicts between and within climate constituencies more in evidence than in the shale fields of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. Although rich in resources, getting to the oil and gas reserves requires the high-pressured injection of large quantities of sand, water, and chemicals to break-up the deep rock formations that hold these fossil fuels in their grasp. The process is called hydraulic fracturing—commonly referred to as fracking.

Fracking is a cause célèbre for both the right and the left. On the right are Republicans and a significant number of union workers whose livelihoods have depended upon the maintenance of a fossil fuel standard—including continued construction of pipelines like the Keystone XL. Traditionally Democrats, building trade unionists, e.g., pipefitters and electricians, crossed over to support Trump in 2016.

Disaffected union members in Pennsylvania and Ohio may once again be the difference in a presidential election. According to Jim Kunz, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 66, the Democratic Party’s leftward migration – especially on clean energy and fracking – more often than not, threatens the jobs on which his 8,000 members rely. According to Kunz, Biden seems to be going down the same road as Hillary Clinton in 2016, which I think was instrumental to her loss in Pennsylvania.

On the left are progressive Democrats led by Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senators Sanders and Markey (D-MA) and many climate activist organizations, e.g., the Friends of the Earth, and other labor unions, e.g., Service Employees International Union. Both organizations are outspoken supporters of the GND that ironically doesn’t make a statement on fracking.

Between his securing the nomination and the Democratic convention, Biden appointed Ocasio-Cortez and former Secretary of State John Kerry as co-chairs of his climate unity task force[i]. The task force also included Kathy Castor (D-FL), Chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, Representative Donald McEachin (D-VA), and Gina McCarthy, the former EPA administrator, who now heads the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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The inclusion of moderate and progressive members on the task force was not only good politics. It was an example of Biden’s particular brand of politics. He had been vilified early in the primary season for claiming an ability to work across aisles and policy divides—even with renowned segregationists like Senators Eastland and Talmadge.

With the climate unity task force, Biden exhibited his willingness to listen and work with progressives and moderates. Although wise, the appointments to the task force were also risky. What would have happened if the members couldn’t come to any agreement? It was more than a passing possibility.

To the credit of all, the panel was able to fashion a policy position that seemed more or less satisfactory to all. In part, the accord was made possible by leaving the matter of fracking for another day. Today, many in labor and the climate community appear willing to give Biden the benefit of any doubts over the fate of fracking. They have chosen instead to focus on the prize of ousting Trump from the White House.

Fracking will remain the 800-pound elephant on the porch—until it’s not. The way to deal with the issue is not to deal with it—at least directly. The focus should be on the power sector’s decarbonization by 2035 and net zero emissions by 2050.

Labor interests tied to the shale fields will not change their opinions on fracking simply because progressive Democrats promise a just transition. There’s not that much trust going around these days. The fact is that most of the shale field jobs lost over these past months of the pandemic are not coming back.

The fragile financial health of shale oil companies has been shown throughout the pandemic-related recession. In July and August, 13 North American oil producers filed for protection from creditors, according to a report by law firm Haynes and Boone, reflecting crude oil prices below profitable levels for many companies.

Oil majors like BP and Shell, along with Saudi Arabia and Russia, are at least in the third inning of the oil end game. At some point, natural gas is no more able to be saved than coal. There are many things the government can do to speed the transition to clean energy sources, without shutting down shale fields, e.g., a national clean energy standard, investment and production tax credits, removal of supports, and putting a price on carbon, etc. Why squander political capital on what can only be a pyrrhic victory?

Biden’s collaborative skills have been honed by 47 years in politics. A genuine willingness to work across the aisle seems to be in his DNA. It marks him as something of an outlier in today’s political environment.

I’ve asked before whether the former Vice President is a man for the moment or only its beneficiary. How he manages the “fracking question” as president could prove the telltale of his success—or failure—as president. For the sake of the nation and the environment, let’s hope he is both.

[i] Over four years.
[ii] Senator Sanders recommended Ocasio-Cortez over himself for the panel.


Teaser photo credit: By Rw22mhhs, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Joel Stronberg

Joel B. Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years of experience, based in Washington, DC. He writes about energy and politics in his blog Civil Notion ( and has recently published the book Earth v. TrumpThe Climate Defenders' Guide to Washington Politics based on his commentaries. He has worked extensively in the clean energy fields for public and private sector clients at all levels of government and in Latin America. His specialties include: resiliency; distributed generation and storage; utility regulation; financing mechanisms; sustainable agriculture; and human behavior. Stronberg is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops.

Tags: 2020 election, American environmental policy, American politics, clean energy transition, Fracking