Can Bernie Sanders Ride Fracking To Victory In New York?

The Democratic presidential candidates have divergent views on the controversial natural gas drilling technique.

In this week's tight New York Democratic primary, the fight over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is one issue of contention between Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And it could be a deciding factor for some voters.

Sanders says he would ban all fracking everywhere. Clinton says the practice should be regulated and restricted, but natural gas is helping the U.S. move away from coal-fired power. Sanders' campaign has capitalized on that difference, noting in an ad released on Monday that he "is the only candidate for president who opposes fracking everywhere." 

Fracking uses a high-pressure stream of water, sand and chemicals to tap into shale formations to release natural gas. The practice has been highly contentious in New York, which contains a lot of natural gas in the Marcellus formation.

A number of communities in upstate New York banned the practice, worried about potential impacts on groundwater, along with other health and safety concerns. In December 2014, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the state would ban the practice entirely. (Sanders' home state of Vermont  banned fracking in 2012.)

Fracking has also become a hot-button issue nationally, with the shale boom driving energy development in regions where it was previously uncommon or not economically feasible. The Environmental Protection Agency said in a much-anticipated study on the impact on fracking last year that there have been some instances of contamination, but fracking has not "led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources." (The EPA’s science advisory board criticized the study, though, saying its conclusion “requires clarification.”)

The fracking debate has been perhaps most fervid in New York. Deborah Cipolla-Dennis, a town board member in Dryden -- one of the first local governments in the state to ban the drilling practice -- said what started as a battle over fracking has become bigger for New Yorkers. 

“It started out as just fracking, but has to do with all fossil fuels and climate change,” Cipolla-Dennis said. “Bernie is the only candidate that has acknowledged that we are in a climate crisis. Hillary Clinton is just the same old, same old, which quite frankly is a lot of talk but not a lot action.”

While Clinton may be stronger than the Republican candidates on climate change, Cipolla-Davis said the majority of Democrats in her county think that Clinton and President Barack Obama “are not strong enough.”

Cipolla-Davis said that the release of methane -- a primary component of natural gas that's 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere -- is reason enough to ban fracking.

"Bernie will advocate for that and really will understand it’s not about the corporations and not about pandering to them," Cipolla-Davis said. "It’s about trying to save our planet." 

Sanders' anti-fracking position has won him the support of many "fractivists" in upstate New York. Josh Fox, director of the popular documentary critical of the natural gas industry, "Gasland," introduced Sanders at campaign events in Binghamton and Peekskill this week.

"There is only one candidate who is anti-fracking. Who is it?" shouted Fox. "Bernie!" responded an enthusiastic crowd.

Fracking was also a contentious issue in Thursday's Democratic debate. Sanders criticized Clinton, saying she "actively supported fracking technology around the world" as secretary of state.

Clinton countered that she did support natural gas to "help countries get out from under the constant use of coal."

"We did say natural gas is a bridge," said Clinton. "We want to cross that bridge as rapidly as possible."

Clinton has said that she supports New York's fracking ban, and that state or local governments that want to ban the practice should be able to do so. She has said that while she believes there are ways to “ensure safe and responsible natural gas production,” it should be better regulated. And she argues that she would crack down on fracking as president, so much so that it would essentially be banned, anyway.

“By the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place," Clinton said in a debate last month.

Sanders' positions on fracking and climate change have won him a strong following in the environmental movement nationally, with endorsements from groups like Friends of the Earth Action Fund, 350.org founder Bill McKibben and Climate Hawks Vote. Following Thursday's debate, Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica said in a statement that Sanders showed "real climate leadership," and praised his opposition to fossil fuels.

Clinton has the endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund, which is among the more staid of the Washington-based environmental groups. The group praised Clinton's "bold and clear vision to position America as a global leader in renewable energy and environmental protection" in a statement Thursday.

Sanders' position on fracking may help him in fracking-wary New York, but a national HuffPost/YouGov poll of 1,000 adults found that more Americans sided with Clinton's approach of tightening regulations without banning the practice.

Thirty-four percent said they "strongly" or "somewhat" agree with Sanders, while 41 percent said they agree with Clinton. Thirty-eight percent of respondents said the presidential candidates' positions on fracking are important to their voting decision.

Curiously, more respondents said they opposed fracking than said they supported it. Thirty-three percent of respondents "strongly" or "somewhat" support fracking; 37 percent said they "strongly" or "somewhat" oppose it. An additional 30 percent said they weren't sure.



While the issue of fracking has given Sanders some room to distance himself from Clinton, it is unlikely to be enough. Polls in New York have shown Clinton with a comfortable, if declining, lead heading into Tuesday's primary.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted April 12 to April 14 among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov’s opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population. The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls.You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov’s nationally representative opinion polling.

Data from all HuffPost/YouGov polls can be found here. More details on the polls’ methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some, but not all, potential survey errors. YouGov’s reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample, rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.