Triple Bottom Line: Fossil fuels, fracking and the fly — takeaways from the vice presidential debate

columnist graphic for Montana Denton fall 2020

If there was one takeaway from the vice presidential debate last week (besides the fly that took up residence on Vice President Mike Pence’s head), it was that neither presidential candidate’s platform denounced fracking. 

For some context, fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a method of recovering gas and oil from shale rock. After drilling down into the earth, a high-pressured mixture of water, chemicals and sand is then injected into the rock, cracking it to release the natural gas and crude oil reserves inside.

Fracking puts a heavy strain on freshwater resources and contaminates the water used beyond repair, depositing it deep in the earth after use so it doesn’t contaminate the freshwater cycle. An unsteady underground rock formation that has been drilled into can compromise the stability of underground water resources and aquifers, putting the drinking water supply of entire regions at risk. Additionally, contaminated water or fracking fluid leaks can percolate back into the water table and into drinking water supplies. 

Despite the widespread environmental degradation caused by fracking, more than 1.7 million United States wells have been created using the fracking process, which have produced more than seven billion barrels of oil and 600 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. While it has undeniably allowed the United States to be more self-sufficient in its energy usage and created many jobs, the harvesting of a nonrenewable resource is creating lasting environmental effects and it’s essential to consider greater investment in more sustainable forms of energy that could replace fracking in the long term.

Enter the Green New Deal. While the term has floated around for the past few decades, the most recent legislation was proposed by Congressional Democrats in 2019. The proposal has lofty goals, including expanding renewable energy production in the United States to meet 100% of the country’s power demand, starting by weaning the country off of its reliance on fossil fuel industries. 

Among other things, the proposal also lays out plans to develop a “smart grid” — that is, improving the nation’s existing electrical grids with better technologies  — establishing more efficient agricultural practices to reduce emissions, working toward zero-emission transportation and developing low-tech solutions like carbon sinks.

Although Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris has been a noted proponent of the Green New Deal, even co-sponsoring the resolution, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s official platform notably states that he “believes the Green New Deal is a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face,” deftly sidestepping the question of whether or not he supports the legislation. Moreover, his plan, titled the “Clean Energy Revolution,” makes no mention of his position on fracking whatsoever. Harris reaffirmed this during the debate, noting that “Joe Biden will not ban fracking. That is a fact.”

While Trump has repeatedly attacked Biden by arguing that his stance against fracking will destroy millions of jobs, this isn’t necessarily true. There is no plan set in place to eradicate the United States of fossil fuels and Biden hasn’t proposed a fracking ban, although he has said that he will not allow new projects on public lands. Conversely, the Biden campaign recognizes the essential role that the fracking industry plays in the current American economy and that there is no cleaner energy alternative that is equipped to take on the energy burden that powers and employs people across the country.

Biden’s environmental plan — distinctly separate from the Green New Deal and advertised to be much cheaper to implement — notes that “our environment and our economy are completely and totally connected,” pledging that he will take steps with the goal of achieving a 100% clean-energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050. 

By furthering investment in smart infrastructure, renewable energy and climate innovations, Biden and Harris assert that they will reintegrate climate into America’s foreign policy by rejoining the Paris Agreement and supporting other nations in their fight to mitigate climate change. They also plan to develop solutions for communities that have been disproportionately affected by pollution and emissions. As for fracking? Biden has previously referred to it as a “transition” — should Biden’s rigorous environmental policies and renewable energy investments work effectively, he’ll put America on the road to a future in which fracking isn’t needed. 

While Biden’s environmental plan is vague at times, emphasizing broad goals and ideas instead of concrete plans to achieve them, it should not be lost on voters that the platform understands the importance of aggressively addressing human-induced factors contributing to climate change. Comparatively, the Trump administration has rolled back many of the environmental protections put in place during Obama’s tenure, including revoking California’s authority to set more restrictive state standards on car emissions. 

Trump has opened more public land for gas and oil drilling, relaxed pollution regulations on coal-burning power plants and repealed wildlife protections. While many of his rollbacks were done in the name of preserving American jobs and maintaining energy autonomy, the investments are short-term at best. At some point, the natural gas reserves will run out and American infrastructure and industry will collapse. While fracking may not be ceased as immediately as some would hope, it’s key to start planning for the future while relying on a tried-and-true (albeit problematic) method of energy production in the meantime. 

Biden is no radical figure poised to single-handedly reverse climate change and electing him is no guaranteed environmental improvement. However, he understands that sustainable change is best enacted over time, as he balances the demands of both the nation’s economy and environmental issues. His rational, science-backed approach to the environmental challenges faced in the United States is a crucial step in seeing improvement over the next four years. 

There are many pressing issues at stake in the upcoming presidential election. Thankfully, I’m only here to write about environmental issues, so I’m analyzing just one part of it. So educate yourself and your friends, and if you’re able to, vote. 

Montana Denton is a junior writing about environmental issues, sustainability and society. Her column, “Triple Bottom Line,” runs every other Thursday.