Even After the IPCC Report, Senate Dems Are Voting for Fracking

Seven Democratic senators voted with the GOP to block restrictions on fracking this week. Those seven Democrats also raked in $1.7 million in donations from oil and gas donors.

Democratic senators Joe Manchin and John Hickenlooper in the Capitol before a Senate vote on May 28, 2021. (Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

One day after the release of a landmark scientific report on climate change, the US Senate faced its first test vote on whether scientists’ grave new warnings are being heeded. In response, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers used the moment to try to prevent America from halting a fossil fuel extraction process linked to one of the most dangerous greenhouse gas emissions — and to rampant ozone pollution choking the American West.

Fifty Republicans and seven Democrats voted Tuesday in favor of a GOP amendment designed to prohibit the executive branch from banning hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking. The measure’s supporters included Colorado’s Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, whose constituents have been warned in recent days to remain inside because of a mix of smoke from climate-intensified wildfires as well as ozone — the latter of which is driven in part by fracking emissions. New Mexico Democrats Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján also voted yes. Their state has been plagued with unhealthy air, too, with local officials telling people on Monday to stay inside as much as possible.

The other Democratic yes votes were senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana, and Maine independent Angus King, whose states have all seen poor air quality at times this summer from wildfires in the west.

Five of the seven Democrats voting for the measure hail from blue states won by President Joe Biden, who declared unequivocally during the 2020 campaign: “I am not banning fracking.” Over the course of their careers, the seven Democratic lawmakers who backed the GOP amendment have raked in nearly $1.7 million from donors in the oil and gas industry, according to data from OpenSecrets.

The vote on Tuesday suggests the entire Republican Party in Congress and some Democrats are either still climate deniers who insist fossil fuels can be part of an environmentally sustainable future, or ecocidal sociopaths who are too corrupt and soulless to care what happens.

The Biden administration’s call Wednesday for OPEC members to boost oil production offered additional evidence that, for all of their rhetoric about the climate emergency, many Democratic leaders appear ready to let the world burn.

Banning a Fracking Ban

Monday’s landmark report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pointed to methane emissions as a key driver of the climate crisis. Emissions of methane — among the most dangerous accelerants of climate change — have exploded in concert with the expansion of fracking.

Ilissa Ocko, a climate scientist at Environmental Defense Fund, said Monday that “cutting methane emissions is the single fastest, most effective way there is to slow the rate of warming right now,” according to Gizmodo.

Despite scientists’ warnings about the links between climate change, methane emissions, and fracking, Tuesday’s budget amendment sponsored by Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND), aims to “prohibit the Council on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency from promulgating rules or guidance that bans hydraulic fracturing,” according to the legislative text.

Cramer’s initiative follows Republican officials in states across the country passing legislation blocking local communities from restricting fracking. If some version of the Cramer proposal ever ended up actually becoming law, the Biden administration and future administrations could be permanently barred from banning fracking.

Cramer’s top career industry donor by far has been oil and gas, which has pumped more than $1.1 million into his election campaigns, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets. Cramer is also pushing separate legislation to effectively prohibit the federal government from regulating fracking — which is already exempted from clean water laws, thanks to legislation passed during the Bush administration.

A recent report from the environmental nonprofit Earthworks found that North Dakota is now awash in toxic chemicals and wastewater amid its recent fracking boom.

Because it is part of the budget process, Cramer’s amendment is not binding — it only instructs the Senate Budget Committee to allow for a fracking ban in the final budget resolution.

Since the measure passed, Senate Budget Committee chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT), will be given the power — and encouragement — to include language prohibiting a fracking ban in his $3.5 trillion budget resolution, which is meant to fund programs to address climate change.

Sanders voted against the amendment, and is the sponsor of legislation to ban fracking.

Fossil Fuel Allies in Blue States

Though symbolic, the Cramer amendment’s simplicity is clarifying. It put every senator on record about a controversial fossil fuel extraction process that has not only been linked to carbon emissions and toxic air, but also to water pollution and health problems.

Just two years ago, researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health found that Coloradans living near fracking sites are at far greater risk of cancer, and previous research linked fracking to birth defects.

Bennet’s vote for the GOP measure comes on the one-year anniversary of his op-ed promising Coloradans that he understands that “time is running out for bold action on climate change.” The senator, who made his personal fortune as a corporate raider for oil billionaire Philip Anschutz, has received $347,000 of campaign cash from the oil and gas industry. He is up for reelection in 2022.

Hickenlooper’s vote is among the first he’s cast on the issue as a senator since using his two gubernatorial terms to boost oil and gas production and become one of the most vociferous fossil fuel advocates in American politics. He earned the nickname “Frackenlooper” after he boasted to Congress that he drank fracking fluid because he’s so sure it is safe.

He won the Colorado Senate Democratic primary in 2020 after the national party endorsed him and dumped cash into the race, helping him defeat a progressive candidate whose major television ad warned that climate change would result in days in which Coloradans were told to avoid being outside.

That projection has now become reality at precisely the moment Hickenlooper voted for the amendment to prevent any president from advancing a fracking ban. Hickenlooper raised $146,000 from oil and gas donors last year.

Manchin, whose family runs a coal brokerage, has taken in $670,000 from oil and gas donors during his career. Manchin holds a key role in deciding climate policy as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, after Democratic senators made him the ranking member of the committee in late 2018.

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David Sirota is editor-at-large at Jacobin. He edits the Daily Poster newsletter and previously served as a senior adviser and speechwriter on Bernie Sanders's 2020 presidential campaign.

Andrew Perez is a writer and researcher living in Maine.

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