BINGHAMTON, N.Y. – Josh Fox walked up to Sen. Bernie Sanders's lectern and plunked it down – a glass jug of brown water. The director of two documentaries titled “Gasland,” who did more than anyone to popularize the case to ban fracking, did not need to explain his prop.
“Are the people who banned fracking in the state of New York in the house?” Fox asked.
The Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena, where thousands of voters had come to see Sanders (I-Vt.), rumbled with applause. Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, bolstered by private polling, sees the fight over fracking (hydraulic fracturing of rocky shale to access natural gas) as an issue where former secretary of state Hillary Clinton would struggle to win New York Democrats. In a new ad, released after the Binghamton speech and narrated by actress Susan Sarandon, Sanders builds on his opposition to fracking by calling for a national ban.
"Do Washington politicians side with polluters over families?" asks Susan Sarandon in the 30-second spot. "They sure do, because Big Oil pumps millions into their campaigns. Bernie Sanders is the only candidate for president who opposes fracking everywhere."
Clinton’s campaign is looking to New York to continue its preferred theory of the primary: a march to the nomination, slowed but not impeded by Sanders. Several times, Clinton’s surrogates have chastised Sanders for negatively contrasting her record with his.
But the fracking issue is Clinton’s challenge in miniature. Where supporters once hoped that she could be toughened and pushed strategically on some key issues, the campaign to ban fracking started with grass-roots activists. They pressured politicians; the politicians did not reach compromise with them. They shared stories and fears of water being contaminated by fracking fluid; the political class reeled.
In 2014, progressive author and activist Zephyr Teachout ran a surprisingly strong primary campaign against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), running best in upstate and southern tier areas with strong anti-fracking sentiment. Shortly after his second term began, Cuomo signed on to the ban. (Cuomo carried Binghamton’s Broome County, but by just five points.)
Pressed by reporters this year, Clinton has said she favors strong regulation of fracking and supports the New York ban. But Fox, who endorsed Sanders for president Feb. 28 -- and whose home state of Pennsylvania votes on April 26 -- asked voters not to fall for Clinton’s conversion.
“Hillary Clinton just said, ‘I support the New York fracking ban,’ ” Fox said. "But Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, developed the global shale gas initiative, which sold fracking to 30 countries worldwide. And she is advocating for a ‘natural gas bridge to the future.’ What does that mean? It means frack gas pipelines crisscrossing everywhere. It means 300 new pipelines that will last for decades.”
When he took the stage, the brown water replaced by something drinkable, Sanders repeatedly promised to ban fracking and compared the anti-fracking movement to other great bottom-up causes.
“It didn’t happen because the governor woke up one day and said: 'Oh, why didn’t I think of that?'” said Sanders. “He did it because he’s a good politician, and that’s fair enough. He responded to the people.”
The comparison to Clinton was obvious. Sanders reminded the crowd that he had always opposed the Keystone XL pipeline -- "a no-brainer" -- while Clinton dragged her decision over more than a year.
"It took Secretary Clinton a while, but she did finally evolve on that issue," said Sanders. "Evolving is not good enough: We need leadership."
Sanders then told the story of how his native Vermont banned fracking. "I don't have to explain to anyone here that the growing body of evidence tells us that fracking is a danger to our water supply, our most precious resource," he said. "It is a danger to the air we breathe. It has resulted in more earthquakes. It is highly explosive. It is contributing to climate change...the toxic chemicals used in fracking are known to cause cancer and birth defects."
He reminded the crowd that he favored a national ban on fracking, and that Clinton did not. And he encouraged supporters that what seemed like an impossible position had been proven possible in New York.
"What you have done is prove to the world that when people stand up and form a grassroots movement of environmentalists, public health workers, farmers, families, and religious leaders, there is nothing that we cannot accomplish," said Sanders.
He was talking about fracking -- and maybe, a few other things.