Sanders Rehashes Debunked Anti-Fracking Talking Points at California Press Conference

Ahead of next week’s primary in California – the nation’s third largest oil producing state – Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders shifted his focus to attacking energy production, holding a press conference in Monterey County (where there is no fracking) to reiterate his support for a ban on…fracking.

In so doing, Sen. Sanders positioned himself at odds with popular California’s popular Democratic Governor Jerry Brown and with the mainstream of the Democratic Party across the country.

Sanders pic

Source: MSNBC

Sen. Sanders has long been an opponent of oil and gas development. None exists in his home state, which also, amusingly, “banned” fracking, and he has frequently confirmed his support for a nationwide ban. Unfortunately, as with many extreme, anti-energy activists, the facts are not on the Senator’s side. He has been endorsed by vocal figures in the vanguard of the fracking-misinformation business like actor Mark Ruffalo and “documentary” filmmaker Josh Fox, so it is not surprising that Sanders does not understand the economic, environmental and national security benefits that domestic energy development, much of which requires fracking, provides.

As Gary Sernovitz pointed out in a New York Times column entitled “Can Liberals Frack?”, a fracking ban like the one Sanders supports would lead to more poverty and higher carbon emissions. The Obama Administration, the Energy Information Administration, the Environmental International Energy Agency and countless scientists confirm that the rapid development of natural gas resources – which requires fracking – is the reason the U.S. is a global leader in greenhouse gas emission reductions. Politicians who listen to scientists rather than Hollywood actors already understand this.

In spite of this good environmental news, and despite the decidedly regressive outcomes that Sen. Sanders’ ban would lead to – more poverty, higher emissions – the Senator nevertheless called such a ban “a no brainer” at his California press conference. Brains are actually pretty important when making policy. Perhaps if he had scientists to advise him on energy issues rather than “artists,” Sen. Sanders wouldn’t have repeated two thoroughly discredited claims: that fracking threatens drinking water that fracking is partially to blame for California’s historic drought.

Let’s look at the facts.

Sanders: “There are tens of thousands of homes where you turn on the faucet and can’t drink the water…if we do not act aggressively on fracking and other issues, this problem will only spread…The EPA … [has] shown clear evidence that fracking can lead to a contaminated water supply.”

FACT: Simply and verifiably false. Claiming that hydraulic fracturing impacts drinking water quality is a claim we’ve come to expect from fringe activists trying to scare people into parting with their money, but scientists and regulators in California and around the country have confirmed that hydraulic fracturing has not contaminated water supplies, and that it is very unlikely that the process – which usually happens thousands of feet below drinking water aquifers – ever could.

For Sen. Sanders to refer to the EPA’s groundwater study when discussing water contamination is particularly audacious. In what it called “the most complete compilation of scientific data to date,” in 2015 the EPA released a comprehensive, 1,000 page study on fracking’s impact on water quality. The EPA reported that “hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.” [Emphasis added]

And it is not just the EPA, of course.  This conclusion falls into line with a landmark study by the Department of Energy and similar reviews from the U.S. Geological Survey, MIT, and the Groundwater Protection Council among the many other experts and institutions cited elsewhere in this article. Perhaps Mr. Ruffalo simply forgot to refer Sen. Sanders to those sharing the overwhelming scientific consensus that fracking is safe.

Sanders: “It takes 160,000 gallons of clean water to frack a single well. California is in the midst of a five-year drought….It makes zero sense to talk about the need to conserve water on one hand and then give big gas companies a greenlight to use huge amounts of water through hydraulic fracking on the other hand.”

FACT: California is suffering of a historic water crisis, but it’s not due to the negligible amount of water used in hydraulic fracturing.

Sen. Sanders has shown a proclivity to speak without being fully informed. For example, he admitted earlier in the week to Sen. Sanders confirmed that he didn’t even know much about the drought – our state’s most pressing issue. He should have educated himself about relative water volume before suggesting that 160,000 gallons is a significant amount of water, when in fact it is about one-sixth the water needed to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

The fact is that, amid the grand complexity of the drought, the water used for fracking simply represents a statistically insignificant portion of state water use. California farms use a total of 34 million acre feet for agriculture, while in 2014 oil and gas companies used just over 214 acre-feet for hydraulic fracturing for the entire year.

In an April 2015 blog post, Oregon State University hydrologist Michael Campana ran the numbers and what he found surprised him:

“Fracking accounts for 0.00062% (or 0.0000062) of the state’s annual freshwater withdrawals. A lot of water? Not in my book. In fact, I thought there was an error — that the figure should have been 70M gallons per day.

Environmental reporter Chris Clarke came to a similar conclusion:

“The water used for fracking in 2014 is just .00069 percent of California’s total water consumption. Or put another way: If all the water used by California society in 2014 was represented by a bank account totaling $10,000, the amount we spent on fracking last year was just under seven cents. Puts those 214 acre-feet in perspective, no?”

Even California’s most passionate anti-fracking activists – including the Chair of the Environmental Causus of the California Democratic Party – now recognize that the “fracking in California uses too much water” claim is nonsense:

 It is interesting that while Sen. Sanders compares the California drought to the Flint, MI water crisis (a topic for another time), one of his most vocal supporters, actor/activist Ruffalo, formed an activist group called Water Defense headed by a “chief scientist” who wasn’t really a scientist (his title was changed after EID exposed his resume) and who was selling his own water-cleaning solutions. The problem is that Ruffalo, his fake scientist, and Water Defense, once descended on Kern Co. and used shoddy science to claim that a 20-plus year old irrigation program that treats and repurposes water – 10 billion gallons a year — for use in agriculture, was dangerous. Testing has repeatedly confirmed that the water is safe and 10 billion gallons of useable water is a godsend for farmers, particularly during the drought. And this is 10 billion gallons of water that the industry produced that would not have been usable but for oil and gas activity.

Ruffalo and Smith then tried the same thing in Flint, national media caught-on. As Slate put it: Mark Ruffalo Is Helping a Fake Scientist Use Flint to Promote His Sponge Business.

While Sen. Sanders is not responsible for Mr. Ruffalo’s claims or personal associations, he may want to think twice about repeating almost verbatim the same rhetoric on fracking as someone who has been shown to actively mislead people about environmental issues.

Sanders: “We cannot push California’s beaches at risk. We have got to stop offshore fracking.”

FACT: Again, there is actual science to weigh against the fear-mongering about beaches – which we all treasure as Californians – are “at risk.” In fact, just this week the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) released a comprehensive joint Programmatic Environmental Assessment (EA)  analyzing well stimulation treatments (WSTs), including hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on the 23 oil and gas platforms on the Outer Continental Shelf off California’s shore.

The conclusion of this comprehensive analysis by two Federal agencies?

“Drawing on the best available science, the EA provides information and analysis on the use of well stimulation treatments in federal waters offshore California. The comprehensive analysis shows that these practices, conducted according to permit requirements, have minimal impact.” [emphasis added]

If Sen. Sanders thinks that the BSEE and BOEM are incorrect in their scientific conclusions, he should explain how.

As EID has previously noted, fringe anti-industry activist groups always react to good environmental news by repeating the same debunked claims, hoping that their followers won’t notice that science has proven them incorrect. It is to be hoped that Sen. Sanders is simply getting the wrong information from groups like these groups and that his claims to want to protect California’s environment are in good faith.


Water-related inaccuracies aside, what Senator Sanders has conveniently left out time and time again throughout his campaign is how much the shale revolution, and the fracking that makes it possible, helps achieve policy objectives he says are close to his heart: the rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and more economic opportunity.

This is a shame, as there are plenty of people outside the fringe activist community — scientists, regulators, academics of all political persuasions – who would be more than happy to educate a candidate for the nation’s highest office about the ways in which our science-based leadership in energy development has made us less dependent on foreign sources of energy, has revitalized entire regions economically, and has provided cleaner air for us to breathe.

Californians deserve the facts, and Sen. Sanders should seek them out. We have a lot of leading scientific experts right here in California, but they sit in our world-class universities, within state and local government, and, naturally, within the industry and responsible, solutions-oriented environmental organizations. California has a great story to tell about more than a century of energy production. Sen. Sanders should hear it if he wants to claim to represent our interests.

Additional resources

Click here for more on the safety of fracking in California, both onshore and offshore. EID’s two-part overview on water and energy development in California can be found here and here.


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