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U.S. Route 285, cutting through the Texas-New Mexico border, is perilous.
Lines of speeding trucks lugging oil and fracking tanks gouge big cracks in the narrow two-way highway. Come night, in the blackened, high desert, it can be challenging to even stay on the crumbling asphalt, with hurrying, aggressive big rigs swerving over the faint yellow lines. People die. Shirts are now sold reading "I survived the 285."
The remote highway is bustling, often dangerously so, because the U.S. fracking revolution is in high gear, and nearly-endless bounties of liquid gold lie beneath the West Texas ground. Overall, U.S. crude oil production and exports have both hit record highs. America is also now the world leader in natural gas production.
Meanwhile, carbon dioxide — a major product of burned fuel — is now rising at rates that are unprecedented in historic and geologic time. Already, levels of the heat-trapping gas are the highest they've been in at least 800,000 years — though it's probably millions of years. Earth, understandably, is feeling the heat. Eighteen of the 19 warmest years on record have occurred since 2000.
Jay Inslee — the presidential candidate running a climate change-focused campaign — proposed an ambitious solution on Monday: rapidly phasing out the extraction of fossil fuels in the U.S., which includes ending fossil fuel drilling on federal land, terminating "outrageous" taxpayer-footed subsidies to fossil fuel business (at the tune of some $26 billion a year), and pursuing a complete, nationwide ban on fracking.
"American fossil fuel production is stepping on the accelerator at just the moment that it should be hitting the brakes," reads Inslee's "Freedom from Fossil Fuels" proposal.
A fracking ban, or a significant curbing of fracking — which involves injecting a high-pressure mixture of water, sand, and chemicals into the ground to break open hard-to-reach pockets of oil — is meaningful because the prohibition would keep bounties of carbon-rich oil buried. But can any president, however influential, truly outlaw the practice, or diminish its climate impact?
✅Ends coal production and fracking
✅Bans oil drilling on public lands and offshore
✅Puts an end to fossil fuel subsidies
✅Fully commits to clean energy
✅Holds polluters accountablehttps://t.co/c39hZ6s3BB
— Jay Inslee (@JayInslee) June 24, 2019
While a president, whoever it might be, can almost certainly take bold actions to curb some fracking and oil activity, a nation-wide fracking ban is a massive challenge (but perhaps one that the fed-up Inslee is up to). That's because the federal government doesn't have dominion over great swathes of privately owned land, where a majority (some 77 percent) of the nation's oil extraction occurs.
"You have an enormous problem," said Jacqueline Weaver, a professor emeritus at the University of Houston Law Center who specializes in oil and gas law. "Landowners own this stuff in Texas."
"And that's hard for the federal government to go after or prohibit," agreed Kate Konschnik, the director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University.
"To [ban fracking] is legally very problematic," Weaver added. "I don't think it's politically possible, to tell you the truth."
Reeling in fracking
But, there are big areas where a president can likely have more success curbing fossil fuel extraction. Doing so would have a momentous impact, as the oil pouring out of the ground in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico — home to incredibly vast reservoirs of oil called the Permian Basin — will almost certainly grow.
"If left unchecked the oil and gas industry is set for a massive expansion in the United States," said David Turnbull, strategic communications director for Oil Change U.S., a nonprofit organization that recently released a report on the potential for oil expansion in the Permian Basin, where Route 285 crosses.
And this oil isn't staying in the U.S. It will feed a hungry globe. "The world's demand for these fossil fuels is growing," noted Konschnik.
A president, though, has sway over federally owned public lands — and those offshore. "On public lands there’s a lot that can be done," said Konschnik. For example, a president could issue a moratorium, or stop, on oil extraction on this land, similar to the Obama administration's moratorium on new leases for coal mines on federal land (which the Trump administration, predictably, overturned).
Such a fracking ban would amount to no small amount of fossil fuels. Oil coming from federal land accounts for around 23 percent of all the oil produced in the U.S. But, it still pales in comparison to the amount of oil coming out of non-federal land.
Yet, another area where a president can drive a big dent is in natural gas, specifically the willful waste of the potent heat-trapping natural gas (or methane) from fracking sites on federal land. At oil wells, unwanted methane is either vented or burned in the atmosphere, needlessly contributing to global warming. Between 2009 and 2015, the amount of lost and flared methane amounted to 462 billion cubic feet of gas (enough to power over 6 million households for a year, according to the Department of Interior). Route 285 is lined with flaring towers burning the gas, like lofty torches in the night. "It’s appalling. It’s absolutely appalling," said the Houston Law Center's Weaver.
As Inslee's plan suggests, a president can pursue rules that would rein in this air pollution. Weaver agrees, noting that an oil well can be closed until the gas is collected, rather than just burning carbon into Earth's atmosphere 24-7.
But all natural gas certainly isn't wasted. Much of it is mined for use. In fact, natural gas has vastly surpassed coal as the nation's primary energy source. Though, this comes with a big headache for any lawmaker, or leader, interested in slashing the nation's carbon emissions.
"Natural gas really is a double-edged sword," said Joe Goffman, a former EPA senior counsel in the Office of Air and Radiation. The gas has unquestionably helped wean the U.S. off coal — the dirtiest fossil fuel — but left the country still emitting loads of heat-trapping carbon. "It presents a significant threat to climate and the environment," Goffman, now the executive director of Harvard Law School’s Environmental Law Program," added. "It really poses a riddle for policymakers right now."
Image: U.S. EIA
Inslee has another ambitious and thorough climate proposal that plans, by 2035, for every watt of energy to come from carbon-free energy. This radically transformed future would, of course, eliminate the domestic need for fracking in the U.S. — though it wouldn't stop foreign nations from importing American-made oil and gas. Unless the U.S., as Inslee also proposed, reinstates a ban on shipping of crude oil abroad. But, here to, lies a problem. If oil companies can't ship their American oil abroad, they can tap the oil in other countries.
"The oil companies will simply move to Russia," noted Weaver. So while the U.S. has a big responsibility to slash carbon, it can't do it alone. This almost certainly requires U.S. climate leadership on the global stage — something that has been woeful, and at times bizarre, under the Trump administration.
The end game
In the end, efforts to rein in fracking are just one part — though a critical part — of any grandiose plan to curb the United States' sizable carbon emissions, one of the largest on the planet. "Every avenue should be pursued to rein in an out-of-control industry," said Turnbull. Ending subsidies for fossil fuel companies — some of the wealthiest corporations in the world — are also a critical element. "That idea [of subsidies] is just insanity," Turnbull said. Equally important is Inslee's proposal to reject any federal infrastructure that allows for the transport of fossils, he said.
Inslee's plan may seem quite bold. "It’s audacious," said Duke University's Konschnik. But perhaps it seems all the more ambitious when compared with the current administration, which has actively fostered climate science misinformation, propped up the coal industry, and is being advised by a physicist who is certain that Earth's plants are in dire need of more carbon dioxide (they aren't).
Image: Shutterstock / Leonid Ikan
"The current administration has really lowered the bar in terms of what will represent progress on climate change," said Harvard's Goffman. "From a climate policy point of view, you may want to wish Inslee godspeed in succeeding to make climate policy a central policy."
"While we should be moving rapidly to phase out fossil fuel production, this administration is doing its best to keep the industry alive," said Turnbull.
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There are a number of Democratic candidates who have already released robust climate-related plans — Beto O'Rourke, Jay Inslee, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden — though none as thorough, or ambitious, as Inslee. But perhaps that's what's needed to edge climate policy forward — to address the problem in the way climate scientists urge. The United Nations' relatively conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded last year that limiting the worst effects of climate change requires "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. "
"There is something to be said for putting out strong proposals, and letting people react to it," said Konschnik. "It's part of a healthy public debate."
Robust political action is likely necessary to fend off mounting weather extremes. Oil giants have been keenly aware — and even accurately predicted — the consequences of loading the atmosphere with carbon. But they've just pursued more oil, buried deep in the ground, where it can only be fracked out.
"The oil industry has been quite knowledgable about this for decades," said Weaver.