Fracking Debate Divides Democrats

The Obama Administration's quiet embrace of natural gas and fracking has helped widen fissures in the Democratic Party between anti-fracking environmentalists and those in the party's labor union base who view fracking as a jobs creator.

"For the first time in my memory, you have a real live issue where environmentalists are lined up on one side, and pretty much the entire rest of the Democratic coalition is lined up the other side," MWR Strategies energy lobbyist Matt McKenna told National Journal.

In states like Pennsylvania where the natural gas industry is booming and creating jobs, Democrats are especially supportive. A Muhlenberg College and University of Michigan survey last fall found that 77% of Pennsylvania Democrats said natural gas is somewhat or very important to the state's economy. Only 22% said natural gas was not very important or not important at all.

Findings like that have placed Pennsylvania Democratic candidates in an awkward position as they try to straddle the fracking issue. 

"They'll tepidly support fracking in the state, saying it can provide a lot of economic benefit to the state," said Muhlenberg professor and pollster Chris Borick. "They'll also tout its environmental advantages … in terms of it being better for climate change than other fossil fuels like coal."

The Obama Administration has continued to quietly support fracking while attempting to keep anti-fracking environmentalists from abandoning the president's base. In the run up to the 2012 presidential election, for example, the Obama Administration loosened critical fracking regulations in the battleground state of Ohio. 

“Anybody who stands in the way of the fracking boom is seen as standing in the way of jobs," Democratic state Representative Robert Hagan told Reuters at the time.

More recently, President Barack Obama infuriated some anti-fracking environmentalists when he appointed as Secretary of Energy pro-fracking Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists Ernest Moniz. Moniz previously directed MIT’s Energy Initiative, an outfit funded by BP, Chevron, and Saudi Aramco.

Whether Obama's environmental base will desert him over what it sees as capitulation remains to be seen. In the past, Obama’s liberal base has also shown a willingness to soften its anti-fracking stance when profitable to do so. In 2008 and 2009, the liberal think tank Center for American Progress accepted $453,250 from natural gas billionaire T. Boone Pickens.

Still, tensions within the Democratic Party and Obama's environmental support base over fracking remain. This week, anti-fracking forces say they will greet Obama's planned trip to upstate New York with an anti-fracking protest.


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