National energy boom blurs political battle lines

DENVER (AP) — The U.S. energy boom is blurring the traditional political battle lines across the country.

Democrats
are split between environmentalists and business and labor groups, with
the proposed Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline a major wedge.
Some
deeply conservative areas are allying with conservationists against
fracking, the drilling technique that’s largely responsible for the
boom.
The divide is most visible among Democrats in the nation’s
capital, where 11 Democratic senators wrote President Barack Obama this
month urging him to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which is opposed
by many environmental groups and billionaire activist Tom Steyer. The
State Department said Friday that it was extending indefinitely the
amount of time that federal agencies have to review the project, likely
delaying a pipeline decision until after the November elections.
Several
senators from energy-producing such as Louisiana and Alaska have
distanced themselves from the Obama administration, while environmental
groups complain the president has been too permissive of fracking.
There is even more confusion among Democrats in the states as drilling rigs multiply and approach schools
and parks.
California
Gov. Jerry Brown was shouted down at a recent state convention by party
activists angry about his support for fracking. New York Gov. Andrew
Cuomo has kept fracking in his state in limbo for three years while his
administration studies health and safety issues. In Colorado, Gov. John
Hickenlooper has drawn environmentalists’ ire for defending the energy
industry, and a ballot battle to regulate fracking is putting U.S. Sen.
Mark Udall in a tough situation.
But the issue cuts across party lines.
Even
in deeply Republican Texas, some communities have restricted fracking.
In December, Dallas voted to effectively ban fracking within city
limits.
"You’re looking at a similar boom as we had in tech in
1996," said Joe Brettell, a GOP strategist in Washington who works with
energy companies. "The technology has caught up with the aspirations,
and that changes the political dynamics fundamentally."
Those
technological advances have made it possible for energy companies to tap
deep and once-untouchable deposits of natural gas and oil. They include
refinements in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which is the
injection of chemicals into the ground to coax buried fossil fuels to
the surface.
The U.S. is now the world’s largest natural gas
producer and is expected to surpass Saudi Arabia soon as the world’s
greatest oil producer, becoming a net exporter of energy by 2025.
The
boom has brought drilling rigs into long-settled neighborhoods, raising
fears of water contamination, unsafe traffic and air pollution, and
outraging residents.
Pollster Steven Greenberg said Cuomo provides
little notice before his public appearances because anti-fracking
protesters will crash his events. Republicans blame the governor for
stymieing growth. New York voters split evenly on fracking, with
Democrats only modestly more likely to oppose it than Republicans.
"No
matter what he decides, he’s going to have half the people upset with
him," Greenberg said. "From a purely political point of view, it’s hard
to argue with his strategy — punt."
In California, Brown has a
long record of backing environmental causes, but he’s drawn the wrath of
some environmentalists for supporting fracking. One group cited the $2
million that oil and gas companies have given the governor’s causes and
campaigns since 2006. Democrats in the Legislature have proposed a
freeze on fracking but are not optimistic Brown will support it.
The Democratic split is sharpest in Colorado.
Hickenlooper,
a former oil geologist, has been a staunch supporter of fracking; at
one point he said he drank fracking fluid, albeit a version without most
of the hazardous chemicals. His administration has fought suburban
cities that have banned fracking, insisting that only the state can
regulate energy exploration.
In response, activists are pushing 10
separate ballot measures to curb fracking. One measure would let cities
and counties ban it. The effort has the support of Colorado Rep. Jared
Polis, a wealthy Democrat. At the state party’s recent convention, he
gave a rousing speech nominating Hickenlooper for a second term but
acknowledged "none of us … are going to agree on every single issue."
Some
Colorado Democrats worry that the ballot push is bringing energy groups
who generally support Republicans into the state. One pro-fracking
group has spent $1 million in TV ads.
Jon Haubert, a spokesman for
the group, said leaders in both parties think the measures are
economically dangerous. "We look at that and say this seems to be an
extreme opinion," he said, referring to the initiatives.
The
ballot measures will force Democratic candidates to choose among
environmentalists, labor groups and Colorado’s business community, whose
political and financial support is vital to Democrats in the swing
state.
Udall embodies this dilemma. He’s an environmentalist in a
tight re-election campaign with Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, who
represents an oil-and-gas rich, mostly rural congressional district.
In an interview, Udall declined to say if cities should have the right to ban fracking. "I’m not a
lawyer," he said.
Hickenlooper
has put in place several landmark regulations — requiring that drilling
occur a set distance from homes and schools and limiting methane
emissions from energy exploration. But that has not assuaged activists
such as Laura Fronckwiecz, a former financial worker who got involved in
an effort to ban fracking in her moderate suburb of Broomfield after a
drilling well was planned near her children’s elementary school.
A
Democrat, she’s aghast at her party’s reluctance to embrace the cause.
"Ten years ago, I’d say it was a progressive cause they’d get behind,"
Fronckwiecz, 41, said, "but much has changed, and the politics of oil
and gas are not what you’d expect."
Fronckwiecz says she has
Republicans and Libertarians in her coalition, as do activists pushing
to limit fracking in energy-friendly Texas. While the GOP-dominated
Legislature in Texas has rejected efforts to limit drilling, activists
have earned small victories in towns and cities that have limited
drilling, and one big win, the Dallas vote.
Sharon Wilson, Texas
organizer for the environmental group Earthworks, says she gets a warm
reception from conservatives and Libertarians. "When they come into your
community and start fracking," she said, "it does not matter what your
political affiliation is."
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