THERE IS perhaps no neater example of the differences between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) than their disagreement on fracking, which emerged in Sunday night’s Democratic presidential debate. Ms. Clinton aimed for the liberal end of the middle ground that exists on the issue. Mr. Sanders ran as far and as fast as he could from that middle ground. Mr. Sanders’s position would be more understandable if he had the better point on the policy. But, as is often the case, his statements were more firmly grounded in ideology than reality.
“Right now, there are places where fracking is going on that are not sufficiently regulated,” Ms. Clinton said. “So first, we’ve got to regulate everything that is currently underway, and we have to have a system in place that prevents further fracking unless conditions like the ones that I just mentioned are met.” Those conditions include regulations to prevent water contamination, to slash air pollution and to require drillers to fully disclose the chemicals they use in their fracking operations. Ms. Clinton indicated that she would shut down a lot of the fracking that is going on across the country, which goes beyond the Obama administration’s calmer position on the matter — and beyond what would be politically sustainable or environmentally wise. But at least Ms. Clinton admitted that fracking’s risks can be managed without shutting down the industry, rightly putting the focus on how to regulate it.
It’s important to understand the environmental value of burning carefully fracked natural gas instead of coal. “If leaks of natural gas can be minimized, the [greenhouse gas] benefits of this transformation would be substantial, particularly as a bridge to a renewables-based future,” noted an evenhanded 2014 fracking assessment published in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources. There are also serious ambient air pollution benefits, including a reduction in harmful ozone, mercury and particulate pollution. Burning natural gas does not produce nasty coal ash.
Despite all this, when it came time for Mr. Sanders to address the issue Sunday, he said, “My answer is a lot shorter. No, I do not support fracking. . . . I talk to scientists who tell me that fracking is doing terrible things to water systems all over this country.” As The Post’s Fact Checker put it, “Sanders is apparently not talking to the scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency. A draft assessment by the EPA released in 2015 said it found no evidence of ‘widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.’ ” True, the EPA’s sweeping conclusion has been the subject of heated debate. But Mr. Sanders is making an even more sweeping claim without sufficient evidence — that fracking is so intrinsically dangerous that the government must ban it rather than regulate it.
As is also often the case, Mr. Sanders’s position is utterly unrealistic. “Given the economic value of the oil and gas resources made available by hydraulic fracturing and related technologies around the world, society is virtually certain to extract more of these unconventional resources,” the 2014 fracking assessment found. “The key issue, then, is how to produce them in a way that reduces environmental impacts to the greatest extent possible.” The country should get on with it.