Hillary Clinton missed a big opportunity on Thursday, offered to her during the Democratic debate in Brooklyn by moderator Errol Louis. Louis asked her about her record on fracking for natural gas, a technique she promoted around the world as secretary of state. Under pressure from environmental activists, Clinton has lately tempered her enthusiasm, and in March she laid out several conditions she would require natural-gas producers to meet before they could frack. What Louis wanted to know was, “Why have you changed your view on fracking?”
Clinton could have pointed out that, since her time in the State Department, the science on the climate implications of natural-gas production has become more clear. She could have mentioned the Aliso Canyon disaster, which has spewed more than 100,000 tons of heat-trapping methane into the atmosphere, or new satellite data indicating a massive spike in methane emissions globally. She could have discussed the growing opposition from communities on the front lines of fracking, which in 2014 pushed New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to ban the technique statewide. She would hardly be the first Democrat to “evolve” on the issue.
Clinton could even have put up an argument as to why a national ban, as advocated by Bernie Sanders and a coalition of major environmental and health groups, might not be a good idea. Sanders himself failed to explain, when pressed, why a fracking moratorium wouldn’t push us back towards coal. But Clinton chose to fall back on the description of natural gas as “a bridge” from fossil fuels to renewables, albeit one “we want to cross…as quickly as possible.” Then she pivoted to a critique of coal, arguing that the world still burns “too much” of it.
Clinton isn’t wrong on that point: While Big Coal continues its downward spiral in the United States—as illustrated by Peabody Energy’s filing for bankruptcy protection on Wednesday—it’s a different story internationally. For the last 15 years or so, other countries, particularly Asian nations, have been speedily building new power plants that are fed by coal, which is often the cheapest source of electricity. Over 2,000 new coal-fired facilities are planned worldwide, with more than 500 already under construction, reports Brad Plumer. Making sure these new facilities never go online—a task that demands alternative sources of energy be made available to poor countries—should be a priority in any serious climate platform. Still, the recent research indicates that reducing emissions by convincing the world to burn less coal isn’t enough if we don’t get get methane under control, too.