No technology has received more attention in recent years than fracking. The method of extracting natural gas and oil made the USA one of the largest producers in the world. But it is controversial – and causes controversy in the final spurt of the election campaign.
They do exist, the wind turbines in Oklahoma and Texas. But it is above all another energy method that moves people in these traditionally conservative US states: the extraction of natural gas and oil by means of “hydraulic fracturing”, or fracking for short. Thanks to this technology, the USA has become the largest oil producer in the world. Hundreds of thousands of jobs depend on it. But the price is high. The reports and scientific research that shed light on the dark side of fracking do not go unheard in the United States either: contamination of drinking water, air pollution from released methane, minor earthquakes, radioactive substances that wash to the surface. The list goes on.
The Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden enters this diabolical mixture – or is pushed into it by his adversary, US President Donald Trump. It is currently a sentence that Biden seems to fly around the ears: “I would move away from the oil industry,” he says after Trump pressured him about it in the TV debate on Thursday evening. “The oil industry is a significant source of pollution. It will need to be replaced with renewable energy over time.”
So far, so understandable, one would like to throw in the face of man-made climate change and the energy turnaround that more and more countries are pushing for. But Trump sees it as a “big statement”. During the election campaign, he repeatedly insinuated that Biden wanted to ban fracking and an industry that has brought enormous prosperity to many regions and their residents in recent years. That’s not entirely true, but Biden is obviously not a fan of fracking either.
In a debate during the primary elections in March, he agreed to a statement made by his then opponent Bernie Sanders. Sanders was in favor of stopping fracking as soon as possible. Shortly afterwards, in the same debate, Biden said, “No more … no new fracking.” His election campaign team later made it clear that the 77-year-old had meant that he wanted to restrict new fracking projects for natural gas production.
“Will you remember that?”
In the meantime, Biden says clearly that he is against a general ban on fracking. He just does not want to allow any new permits for land owned by the federal government. However, these only make up a fraction of the production sites. For Trump’s election campaign team, the relativizing announcements are a hit. Immediately after the debate, the President published a compilation of several videos on Twitter, in which Biden and his vice-candidate Kamala Harris repeatedly take a stand against fracking – underlaid with dramatic music. However, they also make it clear that it is not about an immediate ban, but rather a transition that will take decades.
Biden’s goal: to set net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. This is not necessarily linked to an end to fracking, but rather to a path towards more wind or solar energy. Rather, the Democrat emphasizes that he wants to invest in improving fracking technology so that the methane emissions it causes are minimized.
Trump does not notice these nuances, also speaks in the TV debate about Biden wanting to destroy the oil industry and thereby dozens of jobs. Turning to the audience, he asks: “Do you remember Texas? Pennsylvania? Oklahoma? Ohio?” The states benefit from fracking and are sometimes seen as so-called “swing states” in which it is important to convince voters who are willing to change or who are undecided before casting their votes.
A narrow majority is skeptical
It is worth taking a closer look at Pennsylvania. Around 24,000 jobs in the state depend on the fracking industry. At a campaign rally earlier this week, Trump told the angry crowd, “Joe Biden will ban fracking and get rid of Pennsylvania energy.” But whether these deliberately distorting allegations get caught is questionable. As the website “Vox” reports, Biden is still ahead of Trump in the polls. A clear majority of Republican supporters in the state support the technology. But a slim majority of all registered voters (52 percent) are against fracking.
In the suburbs in particular, people are skeptical. But precisely these are particularly important for a Trump election victory. The President vigorously promotes their votes. But the enormous effort involved in drilling – the exploitation of the raw materials requires many smaller, often very close-together drilling rigs – and the infrastructure, such as the numerous pipelines for transporting the gas and a number of trucks that bring in water – cause displeasure.
In contrast to the extraction of conventional crude oil and gas, fracking in unconventional deposits such as shale involves pumping a mix of chemicals and enormous amounts of water into the subsoil. After drilling vertically and horizontally, hydraulic fracturing occurs. Water and stabilizers or proppants are pressed into the rock under high pressure. It is broken open and cracks (“fractures”) arise. This allows crude oil and natural gas to escape and be carried to the surface through the borehole.
Accordingly, with fracking it is possible to extract natural gas and crude oil from deposits that were still unprofitable in the last century. But the method is controversial. The fracking liquid consists mainly of water and proppants such as sand or ceramic beads. However, it is made up of a small percentage of chemicals to increase the viscosity of the water. Critics fear that this will contaminate the drinking water. In addition, this means that fossil fuels – drivers of climate change – are being kept very fundamentally.
Alongside Texas, Pennsylvania is one of the largest US natural gas producers. But the basic rule in the United States is that the former fracking boom that began around ten years ago is long over. The industry is suffering from increasing unprofitability because too much is being extracted and the gas and oil prices have been too low in recent months. More and more companies are getting into debt. According to Vox, the number of jobs has steadily decreased in recent years.
Criticism also from within our own ranks
According to the AP news agency, three in four Americans say they are concerned about global warming in polls. If Biden can manage to mitigate those worries with an appropriate plan, that should help him make a choice. Trump’s verbal attacks that Biden wanted to ban fracking on the spot could, however, have an increasing impact on local actors and those affected in the industry. Because it is a comparatively simple statement in contrast to an abstract vision that Biden is pursuing. The dilemma in which the democrat is now stuck is reminiscent of the vehement defense of the coal industry in Germany, which also seduces many social democrats with regional responsibility to allow themselves to be carried away to make statements in favor of the fossil fuel industry.
But in contrast to his predecessor Hillary Clinton, Biden succeeds in convincing the white working class better, writes the “Washington Post”. He takes a more moderate stance on the future of the oil, gas and coal industries. He is more approachable, someone who is trusted to have a beer with the workers after work. His team attaches great importance to maintaining good contacts with trade union representatives in the industry.
In the TV debate on Thursday evening, Biden also turned the focus away from jobs and wealth, towards health and safety. The people who live near power plants, fracking sites and oil refineries don’t care that they make a lot of money. It is important that they do not get sick from toxins in the air and other things. An aspect that the entrepreneur Trump, who wants to convince voters above all with a strong economy, does not go into.
For his statements, Biden also has to take criticism from within his own ranks. House Democratic MP, Kendra Horn, tweeted that she disagreed with him on the issue. “We have to stand up for the oil and gas industry.” An approach would have to be pursued that takes into account all energy sources, is customer-friendly, takes energy independence into account and secures jobs. Horn is from Oklahoma. After the debate, Biden felt compelled to make it clear once again that he did not intend to ban fossil fuels. He will hold onto them “for a long time”. If his approach catches on, he could at least convince the people of Pennsylvania. Four years ago, the majority of them voted for Trump.