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Joe Biden’s ‘not banning fracking’ defense, explained

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on Aug. 31 defended his position on fracking during a speech in Pittsburgh. (Video: The Washington Post)

Joe Biden was unequivocal Monday on his position for one of the more politically sensitive climate change debates: whether to ban the profitable and controversial natural gas extraction process known as fracking.

“I am not banning fracking,” he said in Pittsburgh, a city adjacent to heavy fracking activity, in a speech that was largely about denouncing political violence. “Let me say that again. I am not banning fracking. No matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me.”

The Trump campaign pounced, accusing Biden of lying or flip-flopping, mostly by pointing to a clip of Biden saying in a March Democratic presidential primary debate: “No new fracking.” That’s not the first time they’ve harped on that sound bite, even though Biden’s campaign said immediately after that debate that he misspoke, and outside apparently bungling that answer, he has been consistent on this issue as it pertains to the immediate future.

It’s less clear what Biden wants to see happen further off — he also has released a fairly aggressive climate policy plan that aims to reduce dependence on fossil fuels over decades, and he has left open whether fracking will be a part of that. But his position on what to do in a Biden presidency has not changed since the primary: He does not support banning fracking.

Here’s more on what he’s said and why the Trump campaign is going so hard after Biden on this — so much so that Biden felt the need to rebut the attacks Monday head-on.

Biden’s position on a fracking ban

Biden would not allow new fracking on federal lands. He would allow existing fracking to continue on federal property and existing and new fracking to continue on private land. And that means the majority of fracking would go on undisturbed, since most of it takes place on private land anyway. Americans get more coal and oil than natural gas from public lands.

What happened when Biden says he misspoke about his fracking position

Biden was in a heated debate in March with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) about this. Sanders and other liberal powerhouses want to ban all fracking, which is in line with what many climate change activists want.

Sanders: “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.”
Biden: “So am I.”
Sanders: “Well, I’m not sure your proposal does that.”
Biden: “No more — no new fracking.”

Biden was wrong about his own proposal then. As The Washington Post’s Salvador Rizzo fact-checked at the time: “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 campaign points to half a dozen other times in the past year when Biden has explicitly said he won’t ban fracking. As far back as a town hall in September 2019, he declined to endorse a ban. “His position has never changed and certainly didn’t change today,” Biden spokesman Andrew Bates told The Fix on Monday.

What about all the other times the Trump campaign keeps saying Biden was supportive of fracking?

Republicans and conservative media ran with what Biden said in that March debate and have been searching for comments from Biden ever since to try to match it.

Most of these examples the Trump campaign uses conflate Biden’s decades-long vision for a clean-energy economy with his immediate plans now for how to do that. The Trump campaign is taking advantage of the fact that Biden wants to move away from fossil fuels, including fracking, to imply Biden wants to ban fracking now.

Biden’s climate plan calls for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and he’s not specific on how to do that and leaves open the possibility of fracking to continue, as The Post’s Fact Checker reported just last week.

Here’s an example of how Biden’s words now and in the future can get twisted. Another debate exchange the Trump campaign frequently points to from July 2019 seems, on initial appearances, like Biden might be open to a ban:

“Would there be any place for fossil fuels, including coal and fracking, in a Biden administration?” CNN’s Dana Bash asks him.
“No,” he answers. “We would work it out, we would make sure it’s eliminated and no more subsidies for either one of those, any fossil fuel.”

Following that exchange, other candidates like Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) immediately jumped on Biden for not being more willing to stop fracking and other oil and gas extraction sooner: “We cannot work it out. We cannot work this out. The time is up. Our house is on fire. We have to stop using coal in 10 years, and we need a president to do it or it won’t get done.”

(For what it’s worth, Biden’s vice-presidential nominee, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), agreed with Inslee in that debate. Though she did say: “I would take any Democrat on this stage over the current president of the United States.”)

Now that Biden is out of the Democratic primary, he’s willing to be more straightforward about his position.

Here’s a pretty good summation of where Biden stands on fracking in comparison to his long-term vision for America’s energy economy, in his own words in a May CNBC interview: “The whole idea of whether or not we’re going to stop fracking, I would not stop fracking. I’d gradually move away from fracking. I would just not do more fracking on federal lands. I would gradually move us out of the position of relying on oil and gas and coal.”

Why this is so sensitive for Biden

Biden is trying to navigate through a narrow passageway of politically turbulent waters on fracking. On the right, there is open hostility to banning it. On the left, activists argue the situation is so dire, America needs to ban it and other fossil fuel production ASAP.

And for presidential candidates like Biden and Trump, there is a cold political calculation that fracking provides jobs — lots of jobs — in politically important states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania and Texas. Biden gets pressed about this a lot when he talks to people in those regions, people who might be concerned that electing a Democrat could mean electing someone inclined to take away their jobs. (It’s no coincidence that Biden restated his position on not wanting to ban fracking Monday while in Pittsburgh.)

Here he is getting a question in July from ABC’s affiliate in Scranton, Pa.: “We’re losing a lot of jobs overseas, we’re losing a lot of jobs from the pandemic,” reporter Chelsea Strub asks him. “Especially if fracking is on the chopping block, how are we going to help these displaced workers?”

Biden responds: “Well, fracking is not going to be on the chopping block, as you say.”

Despite one misstatement and an inclination to be supportive of moving away from fossil fuels, that position hasn’t changed.