On Fracking, Senator Harris Wants To Have It Both Ways

Senator Kamala Harris insisted during Wednesday night’s debate that, if elected as president, “Joe Biden will not ban fracking.” What Harris said may have seemed problematic to some pundits, but as a politician, it was the best she could do in the moment.

Fracking is a contentious issue and a difficult point for the Democrat ticket, because, on the one hand, Americans want the results of greater domestic oil and natural gas production. On the other hand, the hardliners in the Democrat party opposes domestic fossil fuel production entirely, as can be seen in the plans for the proposed Green New Deal. With her statement, Harris split the difference and left open the possibility to largely satisfy either contingent. 

On the one hand, Americans like fracking or at least the results of it. Here are some of the things Americans appreciate that are tied to fracking: 

  • Cheap gasoline 
  • Cheap natural gas for heating their homes and cooking their dinners 
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  • Cheap electricity from abundant natural gas  
  • Jobs and economic growth that come with a robust energy industry 
  • Export of American oil and natural gas 
  • Taxes collected in states like Pennsylvania and North Dakota that fund large portions of their budgets 
  • Freedom from reliance on foreign oil which often originates in countries controlled by authoritarian regimes, like Saudi Arabia or Venezuela. 

On the other hand, the most progressive part of the of the Democrat base opposes domestic fracking. In response to Harris’ statement last night, Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter, “Fracking is bad, actually.”

While President Trump and Vice President Pence have a clear message that their base approves—continued support of the fracking industry—Biden and Harris don’t want to upset anyone just yet. They or their surrogates may even have to cajole and reassure the AOC side of the party at some point between now and November 3. 

Conservatives accused Harris and Biden of a “flip-flop,” and that may be true. However, politically she is stuck between two bad choices. And the simple truth is that her statement—that “Biden will not ban fracking”—leaves much room for maneuver. 

If elected, Biden could stay true to Harris’ word and still significantly hinder the fracking industry and cut fracking production. He could try to halt drilling new wells on federal land or try to stop all oil production on federal land. The agencies under his administration like the EPA and the Department of the Interior could increase regulations for leasing, permitting, drilling, producing and transporting. Biden could work to raise taxes on fossil fuels at any stage of commerce. He could try to turn back President Obama’s authorization permitting the U.S. to export crude oil. There is much he could do to disrupt the industry short of actually banning fracking.  

Yes, Harris forcefully said a Biden administration would not ban fracking, but she did not give any indication what a Biden administration would do. She did not share policy regarding domestic oil and gas production. In that moment, she was a good politician.

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