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What is fracking, and where do Trump and Biden stand on it?

The issue of fracking in 2020 campaign
The issue of fracking in 2020 campaign 08:36

With just days until Election Day, President Donald Trump is reportedly considering issuing an executive order that would signal his support for fracking. Democratic nominee Joe Biden's campaign has said he wouldn't ban fracking outright but does favor a ban on new fracking on federal land.

The controversy over fracking has been raised numerous times as the candidates make their final push to reach voters in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, where thousands of residents depend on the industry for their livelihoods. But Americans in other parts of the country may be wondering what exactly it is and why it matters to the country as a whole.

Fracking — short for hydraulic fracturing — is a process for extracting natural gas by drilling thousands of feet into the ground and injecting a solution of water and chemicals through the earth's crust to break up horizontal layers of shale rock. The oil and natural gas that escapes through the cracks is harvested in over a dozen states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Colorado and California.

Pennsylvania, however, has benefited from fracking and the industry surrounding it more than most states. According to the Energy Information Administration, it produces more dry natural gas than every state except Texas. After the 2008 economic crisis, its economy rebounded partially due to an influx of fracking. 

"Pennsylvania has seen over the last few years a ton of cheap natural gas, and, a lot of people make a lot of money off of it," NPR's Scott Detrow, who previously covered Pennsylvania's hydraulic fracking industry for NPR's StateImpact project, said on CBSN Wednesday.

However, critics of the fossil fuel extraction method say its harmful impact on the environment outweighs its benefits. Americans who live near fracking sites worry the chemicals pounded into the ground could penetrate local water supplies. In 2017, Pennsylvania environmental regulators found a likely correlation between a series of earthquakes in the area and a local fracking company's operation. 

In fact, Detrow said, Pennsylvania residents "have always had a down-the-middle split" in their opinions on fracking. 

"The eastern part of the state, the part of the state that Joe Biden needs to do really well in to win next week, has always been very skeptical of this process," Detrow said. "President Trump seems to be operating like 100% of Pennsylvanians want to see as much fracking as possible." 

Poll show the race is tight in Pennsylvania, and with 20 Electoral College votes it could be a potentially decisive victory for either side. Mr. Trump won the state narrowly in 2016. He ran on a promise of championing the oil and natural gas industry, and is doing the same in 2020 after cutting back over 100 environmental regulations during his first term.

However, plummeting fuel prices combined with a lack of need for new wells have led to a decline in the fracking industry, and according to Detrow, green energy has emerged as a significant portion of Pennsylvania's economy.

"The clean energy sector — solar, wind, energy efficiency — is actually creating a lot more jobs right now than the natural gas industry is," he said.

"I think what is important is that the parts of the state where fracking is continuing to be a big economic driver — western Pennsylvania, northeastern Pennsylvania — are the parts of the state where President Trump needs to drive out to his supporters as much as possible," Detrow explained.

Biden, on the other hand, is pushing for a transition towards renewable energy, though he has repeatedly said he does not want to ban fracking as a whole. His green energy plan states a goal of running the U.S. on carbon neutral energy by 2035 — something Detrow said would be "the elimination of the fossil fuel industry as we see it right now." 

"Joe Biden thinks that a lot more voters want to see that," he said. "The climate change crisis has become real, for a lot more voters than it was even four years ago." 

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