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Fact-checking the Biden fracking fracas

(Evan Vucci/AP)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.): “I’m talking about stopping fracking as soon as we possibly can. I’m talking about telling the fossil fuel industry that they are going to stop destroying this planet — no ifs, buts and maybes about it.”

Former vice president Joe Biden: “So am I.”

Sanders: “Well, I’m not sure your proposal does that. …”

Biden: “No more — no new fracking.”

Exchange at a Democratic presidential primary debate, March 15

“There are 7.3M Americans whose jobs depend on fracking. Biden and Bernie would eliminate them.”

— Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, in a tweet, March 16

In this back-and-forth with Sanders, Biden indicated from the debate stage that he would ban all fracking in the United States.

Critics pounced. Republican operatives cut a short video of Biden’s remarks, to use as a cudgel in races against moderate House Democrats. Sanders supporters accused Biden of misleading voters about his policy, which doesn’t ban fracking outright, as Sanders would.

But the Biden campaign said that he misspoke and that his position was the same as ever: He would issue no new fracking permits for federal lands or waters, while allowing existing fracking operations to continue.

The Facts

Biden has proposed a $1.7 trillion plan that aims for net-zero emissions by 2050. The plan, which might be described as “Green New Deal-lite,” would end fossil fuel subsidies while continuing to rely on these energy sources during the 30-year transition period.

Fracking, short for “hydraulic fracturing,” is a drilling technique that uses high-pressure water and chemical blasts to access natural gas and oil reserves underground. The technique has facilitated a boom in U.S. energy production over the past decade, but it has been controversial, the target of climate-change activists and many Democrats.

For Biden, it’s a fine line to straddle. Pushing for a total ban could hurt his general election chances in the swing states where fracking has propped up the economy, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. Anything less than a total ban could detract from Biden’s appeal among liberals and climate-change activists in the Democratic base.

Biden’s campaign website avoids the words “fracking” or “hydraulic fracturing.” Instead, it says Biden would ban “new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters.”

That may be why his remarks at the debate caught so much attention. Biden seemed to be staking out a new position. When Sanders said, “I’m talking about stopping fracking as soon as we possibly can,” Biden said, “So am I.” A few beats later, Biden said “no more — no new fracking.”

A Biden campaign official told us the former vice president was not adopting a new position. Biden meant to restate his previous pledge to ban “new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters.”

That’s the same clarification that reporters received on the night of the debate, which meant that Biden’s remarks were not widely reported as some new position he was taking.

Some folks didn’t get the message. McDaniel, the RNC chairwoman, tweeted a video of Biden’s remarks and claimed that his policy would shut down all the fracking jobs in the country. The Trump campaign also used a Biden video snippet from the debate in a tweet claiming he would “ban fracking.” Right-wing media outlets including the Washington Free Beacon, the Daily Caller and Fox News all reported on Biden’s remarks as though he had adopted a tougher line.

The National Republican Campaign Committee, the GOP’s campaign arm for House races, took aim at Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), a Biden supporter in one of the most closely contested swing districts. The NRCC claimed that “one day after Joe Biden proudly pronounced there would be ‘no new fracking’ in his administration, Conor Lamb went on the record to praise Biden’s job-killing policy.”

In fact, the Wall Street Journal article the NRCC referenced prominently reported that Biden’s position on fracking hadn’t changed despite his debate remarks. An NRCC spokesman told us that the group was using Biden’s own words.

“Certain Democratic presidential candidates have promised to ‘ban fracking,’ and I’ve publicly criticized them for doing so,” Lamb wrote in a separate Wall Street Journal letter to the editor in February. “Vice President Biden has criticized them, too. He has explicitly promised not to ban fracking, and when confronted by an activist who was upset with his position, Mr. Biden told him plainly: ‘You ought to vote for someone else.’ ”

At a campaign stop in December, Biden was asked: “I’ve looked at your climate plan. Why doesn’t it ban fracking?” He responded, “Because you can’t ban fracking right now; you’ve got to transition away from it.” When challenged, Biden said, “You ought to vote for somebody else.”

Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said Republicans were resorting to “embarrassing smears.” “It’s heartening to us that Donald Trump keeps admitting, through his reliance on outright lies, that he himself knows he could only beat Joe Biden in an alternate universe,” Bates said. “As president, Joe Biden will mobilize the nation to overcome the climate emergency that Donald Trump denies, creating jobs and standing up for American workers.”

The Pinocchio Test

The errors happened on all sides, so we won’t be awarding Pinocchios to anyone.

Biden described his fracking stance inaccurately. He supports a ban only on new permits for federal lands and waters. The Biden campaign quickly retracted his remarks on debate night. That seemed to reach enough reporters, and Biden’s remarks attracted scant attention in the mainstream media.

On the right, a different version of reality took hold. Biden’s videotaped remarks took on a life of their own, feeding the incorrect notion that he now supports a total ban on fracking. His position is the same as it ever was. We will be keeping a close watch on whether his position is mischaracterized in the future — or whether Biden appears to adjust his stance yet again.

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