Energy & Environment

The Warren Fracking Ban: On Public Lands, and Heck, Everywhere Else

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks with supporters in Des Moines, Iowa, January 18, 2020. (Gage Skidmore)
Elizabeth Warren’s proposed fracking ban was rejected as too radical by the Obama administration — for good reason.

Editors Note: The following is the second installment of a three-part series adapted from David L. Bahnsen’s new book, Elizabeth Warren: How Her Presidency Would Destroy the Middle Class and the American Dream. Part I is here.

The subject of energy production on public land has been controversial for many years, with many realists recognizing that significant revenues are available to fiscally strapped state governments via land-lease deals with energy producers. Indeed, oil and gas leases alone generated $1.1 billion of revenue for states in 2018, despite a fall in the number of acres under lease. Of that $500 million went directly into supporting hospitals and public schools in states that depend on the revenue. If that were not significant enough, oil and gas development accounted for 284,000 jobs last year on federal land alone and contributed $60 billion of output to the national economy. Total energy production on federal lands and waters generates a stunning $11.3 billion of annual revenue, with the major beneficiaries being Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, where, observant spectators may note, no Ivy League universities are based, and where cosmopolitan liberalism is not exactly headquartered.

Elizabeth Warren’s response?

Any serious effort to address climate change must include public lands. As president, I would issue an executive order on Day One banning all new fossilfuel leases, including for drilling or fracking offshore and on public lands.

She buries her extreme policy intentions in patently false claims that the current administration is “busy selling off our public lands to the oil, gas, and coal industries for pennies on the dollar — expanding fossil-fuel extraction that destroys pristine sites across the country while pouring an accelerant on our climate crisis.” Even as the quantity of acreage leased for production has been declining year over year, revenue has risen, owing to better yield. Her fear-mongering papers over an ignorance that would lead her to adopt a policy with a dangerous economic impact and absolutely no environmental benefit.

The “Keep It in the Ground Act of 2017,” which Warren cosponsored (and which was dead on arrival in the Senate), was the result of a radical movement that opposes all fossil-fuel development. That movement unsuccessfully lobbied the Obama administration to issue the moratorium that Warren now supports. Even the Obama administration concluded the suggested policy would be destructive and resisted the very efforts that Warren and her Senate colleagues now support. The pendulum swing to the Democratic party’s embrace of economically destructive, environmentally nonconstructive policy ideas has been rapid, to say the least.

True to form, Warren finds a way to blame “profits” for the “problem” of lease revenue helping to subsidize hospitals and schools in the middle-class centers of flyover states: “It is wrong to prioritize corporate profits over the health and safety of our local communities,” she said, as a justification for her proposed drilling ban. This is a textbook case of claiming to protect the very people her policies will most harm, and there’s no ambiguity about it.

I join many left-wing environmentalists in opposing subsidies to fossil-fuel producers (for entirely different reasons). I, of course, have to hold that position, since I oppose all subsidies to all economic actors, believing that the government has no right to pick losers and winners. In the case of federal land leasing, there are billions of untapped dollars, which belong to the citizens of the United States, and which our government has not just the right but the duty to exploit for the benefit of its citizenry. Innumerable checks and balances exist on how these leases are administered, and reasonable people can disagree on the particulars regarding the exact quantity of leases and the amount of acreage, and so on. What is beyond reason is the idea that all public lands should become devoid of economic yield instantly. Such a move would do nothing but shift the production capacity from federal land to private land, all the while decimating the states that would be unable to reap any benefit from their resources.

But I cannot emphasize this point enough — Senator Warren, while she is as unhinged from economic and environmental sense as one can be on these issues, does have a very strong political sensibility that many on the left have lost: She refuses to get trapped in the absurdity that is the en vogue movement against plastic straws, light bulbs, and cheeseburgers. “This is what the fossil fuel industry wants us talking about,” says Warren. While city councils in California and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s position papers have been unable to resist the horrific infringements on American quality of life that straw bans and such represent, Warren knows that the radicalism she wants enacted stands a better chance by her not taking the bait on small-ball issues such as drinking straws. This shrewdness adds to her formidability and does not take away the danger of her big ideas.

And this brings me to the biggest idea of them all: her promise to eliminate all fracking on Day One.

“Fracking” is the popular term used to describe hydraulic fracturing, a stunning 20th-century innovation whereby underground rock is cracked with pressurized liquid, allowing for oil and gas to more easily flow through it. Unquantifiable volumes of oil and gas previously believed to be inaccessible underground have now been produced in the shale revolution, all thanks to the fracking process that Elizabeth Warren is swearing she will ban.

And let’s be clear: She is not swearing she’ll ban fracking merely on federal land (something President Obama advocated); she has called for a comprehensive ban on all fracking activity (something that would have been unthinkable even to the left-wing Obama administration). And it was unthinkable for good reason — the eight years President Obama was in office were marred by high unemployment coming out of a brutal recession, followed by the most tepid economic recovery in American post-war history. And yet, 4.3 million of 9.3 million jobs created during those years were directly or indirectly created as a result of the fracking revolution. The idea that America’s oil-and-gas sector was responsible for 46 percent of the underwhelming job creation throughout Obama’s two terms must give cardiac arrest to those contemplating the idea of going without it. And it is not just the sheer number of jobs fracking created, but the quality of the jobs (and wages) that must be understood. In a period where wages had stagnated for American families, jobs in oil and gas extraction paid 76 percent above the national average ($44 per hour vs. $25 per hour on average).

It is very hard to translate “GDP growth” to a relevant economic metric that speaks to the middle class. “Gross domestic product” sounds wonky, and it lacks apparent relevance to American households interested in job stability, income growth, and quality of life. So when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce put out a study estimating that $548 billion of GDP growth over the last decade was a result of the fracking revolution, readers could be forgiven for not fully appreciating what this means (it is equivalent to adding the entire country of Sweden to our national economy in just a decade).

But jobs matter. Wages matter. And people pay for things they buy — that matters. Indeed, increases in the cost of things that members of the middle class buy has the same effect as a wage cut, especially when that thing is not something someone can buy less of (i.e., what he uses to heat his home). So beyond the gravity of the job numbers, the wage figures, and the more abstract GDP growth, consider what the fracking revolution has done to the cost of natural gas.

The economic impact of undoing the great progress fracking has generated economically would be a direct assault on the quality of life of millions of middle-class people in our country. The left-leaning Brookings Institution concluded that middle-class families were benefiting by $432 per year in direct savings from the fracking revolution, and $75 billion per year in aggregate. The economic toll of reversing this would be unspeakable and should be reason enough for any sensible person to eliminate the idea from policy consideration. Yet even more than the economic argument, the environmental argument is a compelling reason to disavow this extreme Warren proposal.

That point will be picked up tomorrow, in Part III of this investigation.


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