The State Department hoped Poland could be a “laboratory for testing whether U.S. success in developing shale gas can be repeated in a different country.”
Emails obtained by The Intercept from the State Department reveal new details of Hillary Clinton’s behind-the-scenes efforts to export fracking—a method of extracting oil and natural gas from underground shale deposits—to foreign countries during her tenure as Secretary of State. The emails, acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request, could be particularly damning in light of Clinton’s recent attempts to ally herself with the anti-fracking movement.
ast month, in advance of the New York primary, the Clinton campaign aired a television ad announcing her allegiance with so-called fracktivists fighting to stop fracking, which has been tied to a number of health and environmental problems. (New York banned fracking in 2015 after an extensive seven-year study.) In the spot, a narrator says, “China. India. Some of the world’s worst polluters. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton forced them to the table, making real change by laying the groundwork for the historic global agreement to combat climate change,” and adding that as president, Clinton will “stand firm with New Yorkers opposing fracking, giving communities the right to say no.” The ad was not announced to the press at the time and is not included with most of Clinton’s other ads on her official campaign YouTube page.
Here’s the Clinton campaign ad:
The recently obtained emails appear to contradict the anti-fracking position the Democratic frontrunner takes in the spot. Recently, Clinton has tried to distance herself the fossil fuel industry, fending off attacks from her opponent, Bernie Sanders, whose campaign argued that she “has relied heavily on funds from lobbyists working for the oil, gas and coal industry.”
Lee Fang and Steve Horn write on The Intercept:
Far from challenging fossil fuel companies, the emails obtained by The Intercept show that State Department officials worked closely with private sector oil and gas companies, pressed other agencies within the Obama administration to commit federal government resources including technical assistance for locating shale reserves, and distributed agreements with partner nations pledging to help secure investments for new fracking projects.
The documents also reveal the department’s role in bringing foreign dignitaries to a fracking site in Pennsylvania, and its plans to make Poland a “laboratory for testing whether U.S. success in developing shale gas can be repeated in a different country,” particularly in Europe, where local governments had expressed opposition and in some cases even banned fracking.
During the Democratic debate in Brooklyn, New York, on April 15, Clinton responded to a question about the inconsistency of her position on fracking:
No, well, I don’t think I’ve changed my view on what we need to do to go from where we are, where the world is heavily dependent on coal and oil, but principally coal, to where we need to be, which is clean renewable energy, and one of the bridge fuels is natural gas. And so for both economic and environmental and strategic reasons, it was American policy to try to help countries get out from under the constant use of coal, building coal plants all the time, also to get out from under, especially if they were in Europe, the pressure from Russia, which has been incredibly intense. So we did say natural gas is a bridge.
The newly released documents add a compelling new layer to the in-depth investigation conducted in 2014 by Mother Jones reporter Mariah Blake, who said Clinton’s pro-fracking stance was “part of a broader push to fight climate change, boost global energy supply, and undercut the power of adversaries such as Russia that use their energy resources as a cudgel.”
While fracktivists contend that fracking is anything but climate-friendly, natural gas—as Clinton mentioned in the Brooklyn debate—has been viewed by proponents, including President Obama, as a bridge to clean energy because it burns cleaner than coal. However, the fracking process also leaks its primary target, methane, which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The EPA acknowledges that “pound for pound, the comparative impact of methane on climate change is more than 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.” The first 20 years after it enters the atmosphere is much more intense: That’s when methane traps about 86 times as much heat at CO2.
I talked to Josh Fox, director of Gasland, a 2010 documentary that helped launch the anti-fracking movement, and more recently, How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change (airing on HBO on June 27) about the notion of natural gas acting as “bridge to clean energy.” He said:
When Hillary Clinton says it’s a bridge fuel, it sounds to people like that’s a short span of time. But it’s completely deceptive. The bridge fuel argument means we’re going to switch our entire electricity sector to fracked natural gas. That means building 300 fracked gas power plants around America. That means hundreds of thousands of miles of pipelines. It means probably 2 million new fracking wells. And those power plants aren’t financed for five years. They’re financed, like most people’s houses, for 30 or 40 years. That’s a regime change in American energy to fracking. That’s Hillary Clinton’s plan.
Fox and other fracking opponents believe this drilling method is a massive and dangerous distraction from the real solution: transitioning to a low-carbon economy, moving investments away from fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas and toward renewables like solar, wind, hydro and geothermal. “Renewable energy is the soul of democratic political revolution because it’s distributed among people,” Fox says. “When you have solar on your rooftop or a wind turbine in your neighborhood, you have broken the cycle of fossil fuel tyranny.”
Environmentalists and public health advocates who worry about the impact of fracking in the United States, which has fairly strong environmental and public safety laws, should be concerned about exporting the method to countries where such regulation is lax, unenforced or even non-existent.
In 2010, Clinton’s State Department launched the Global Shale Gas Initiative, created to provide assistance to nations in Eastern Europe and elsewhere interested in duplicating America’s shale boom. The first GSGI event included representatives of 17 countries “to discuss the importance of shale gas as a lower-carbon fuel option that can help reduce CO2 emissions while ensuring energy security and economic development in the 21st century.”
According to a State Department press release, “The GSGI uses government to government policy engagement to bring federal and state governments’ technical expertise, regulatory experience in ensuring the safety of water supplies and air quality, and diplomatic capabilities to bear in helping selected countries understand their shale gas potential and the responsibilities of governments.”
David Goldwyn, special envoy for energy affairs at the State Department, played down the initiative’s active role in connecting fossil fuel companies to foreign governments in the hopes of exporting American-style fracking abroad. In April, Goldwyn told the National Journal that “[Clinton’s] instruction to me was that it was OK to talk about helping other countries get access to their own resources, as long as the focus of our engagement was how they could do it safely and efficiently, and that’s why the program had almost an entirely regulatory focus.”
“But,” write Fang and Horn in The Intercept, “the emails show an aggressive effort to engage private energy companies and use Poland as part of a larger campaign to sell fracking throughout the region.”
An email dated December 3, 2010, shows that the State Department had Poland firmly in its bull’s-eye and that companies such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Marathon Oil, Canadian firm BNK Petroleum, and Italian energy company Eni expressed interest in tapping into Polish shale…..”I think we should be open to working with the Poles to spread knowledge and understanding of Poland’s (and Europe’s) shale gas potential,” wrote the State Department’s Chuck Ashley, who now works in the Office of the U.S. Ambassador to Israel.
“Poland,” Ashley wrote, “is a laboratory for testing whether U.S. success in developing shale gas can be repeated in a different country, with different shales, and a different regulatory environment.” Ashley also noted that “popular and political support is strong now, but this could change when shale gas wells come to their backyards.”
Introducing fracking to Europe “as a geo-strategic gambit against Russian oil has got to be one of the craziest ideas in all of history,” alleges Fox. “If you want to stop tyranny, you must stop oil. If you want to increase tyranny, you increase oil and fracking. Oil is the lifeblood of tyranny right now, whether that oil comes from Putin or Saddam Hussein or George Bush or Dick Cheney or Hillary Clinton or these Latin American dictators. So when you say you’re going to use our tyranny versus their tyranny, you still have tyranny.”
The State Department’s hopes for establishing Poland as a fracking success have so far been dashed. In addition to underperforming wells, local activists rose to fight Chevron’s fracking development. In January, the company announced it was abandoning its fracking operations in Poland.
In fact, the prospects of establishing a shale gas boom across Europe as a bulwark against the increasing energy influence of Russia—whose exports supply a quarter of Europe’s energy consumption—are fading. In addition to the false start in Poland, Romania’s wells have not produced to expectations. Fracking deals in Ukraine collapsed in 2013, as potential sites were identified in conflict zones. The Netherlands, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic have enacted fracking bans. France has had a fracking moratorium in place since 2011.
“The pause in fracking, however, might be momentary,” write Fang and Horn. “A number of energy companies that worked closely with the State Department now employ lobbyists that are fundraising furiously for Clinton’s campaign. ExxonMobil’s top lobbyist, as well as lobbyists for liquefied natural gas terminals designed to connect the U.S. to the global gas market, are among the most prolific fundraisers.”
State Department officials under Clinton may well have extolled the virtues of fracking to foreign dignitaries visiting the fracking site in Pennsylvania. The fracking boom made Pennsylvania the third largest producer of natural gas in the nation. The labor income generated by the oil and natural gas industry accounted for more than five percent of the state’s total in 2011. Fracking the natural-gas rich Marcellus shale formation underlying the state created 245,000 new direct and indirect jobs in Pennsylvania and “pumped tens of billions of dollars into the state’s economy.”
The economic boom caused by fracking is a serious pro. But there are also some serious cons.
The more than 60 operators running over 7,700 active well have incurred among them more than 4,000 violations, amounting to fines in excess of $6 million. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that expectant mothers who live near active fracking sites in Pennsylvania have a higher risk of giving birth prematurely and having high-risk pregnancies.
A separate Johns Hopkins study found that homes located near fracking sites in the Keystone State have an overall radon concentration 39 percent higher than those located in non-fracking urban areas. And then there’s earthquakes and contaminated drinking water. (A recent federal re-analysis of drinking well samples take from Dimock, Pennsylvania in 2012 found that there was fracking contamination and health and explosion risk, contradicting a previous EPA study that found the water safe.)
“In shifting away from coal and toward natural gas, we’re trying for cleaner air,” John H. Quigley, former secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, told The New York Times in 2011. “But we’re producing massive amounts of toxic wastewater … and naturally occurring radioactive materials.”
Three years later, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study that found Pennsylvania’s gas wells were releasing up to 1,000 times the amount of methane into the atmosphere than the EPA had originally estimated. “In reality,” concluded the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island in a report released in January, “gas produced by fracking is worse for the climate than coal.”
Five years ago, Quigley likened fracking to “burning the furniture to heat the house.” Today, it’s clear that it’s not just the furniture that got burned. The mythical, methane-fueled “bridge to clean energy” Clinton had been peddling around the globe has already gone up in smoke.