President Biden might not be known, first and foremost, for his stirring public remarks, but there is one subject to which he always brings a rousing passion: his son Beau, who died of an aggressive brain cancer in the spring of 2015. Biden’s 2017 memoir Promise Me, Dad is a testament to their intense bond.” Biden has described Beau as “all the best of me.” Grappling with grief, Biden chose not to run for president in 2016. He ran in 2020 in part because of one of his and Beau’s last conversations.
Beau is still his father’s lodestar, and the clear inspiration behind a signature initiative: Biden’s Cancer Moonshot, which aims to cut cancer’s death rate by 50 percent over the next 25 years and end cancer as we know it today. To this end, Biden has assembled a Cancer Cabinet, appointed members to a cancer panel, directed federal funding towards cancer screenings, and urged scientific and medical communities and private industry to join the cause.
But succeeding at his Cancer Moonshot’s goals will require more than funding research into cancer treatments. As the first day of February marks the beginning of National Cancer Prevention Month, it’s worth acknowledging that cancer prevention requires different approaches than treatment, and must include a reckoning with the carcinogens that pervade our environment. If Biden really wants to fight cancer in America, he’s going to have to challenge the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries. Among other things, this means confronting an Achilles heel of the Democratic Party: domestic fracking.
Since the 1970s energy crisis, the Democratic Party has consistently embraced the notion that “energy independence” could be secured through increasing domestic natural gas production. This is a throughline of the Democratic Party platform from Carter to Clinton, Kerry to Obama, from when fracking was “unconventional” to when it accounted for a majority of U.S. gas production. In the mid-2000s, the discovery that fracking and horizontal drilling could unlock massive new domestic reserves of gas from shale deposits changed the American energy landscape. Fracked shale gas went from accounting for only 1 percent of U.S. dry natural gas production in 2000 to 79 percent by 2021. In 2022, the U.S. became the world’s largest exporter of liquified natural gas.
We haven’t known for very long about the damage fracking does to our bodies and environment. But today, as more gas is being fracked in the United States than ever before, the evidence is overwhelming.
“With fracking,” the public health advocate Dr. Sandra Steingraber told Rolling Stone in 2018, “we had six peer reviewed articles in 2009 pointing to possible public health risks. By 2011 we had 42. Now there are more than 1,200.” Steingraber is a co-author of a scientific and medical compendium published in April 2022 compiling available research on the risks and harms of fracking and associated gas and oil infrastructure. The compendium, now in its eighth edition, is 577 pages long. And its warning is stark: “Our examination uncovered no evidence that fracking can be practiced in a manner that does not threaten human health directly or without imperiling climate stability upon which human health depends.”
A study out last summer in Environmental Health Perspectives added to what has become abundantly clear in recent years: there is a strong connection between a person’s proximity to fracking sites and their risk of developing cancer. This particular study found that children in Pennsylvania who live within two kilometers of a fracking site at birth are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia during early childhood than children who do not live near fracking facilities. In Pennsylvania, the allowable “setback distance” for fracking operations is a mere 500 feet.
Another 2022 study found that over 17.6 million people in the U.S. live within one kilometer of a fracking site. But it’s not just fracking that’s carcinogenic; all aspects of natural gas and its production — drilling, processing, storing, transporting, and burning — increase people’s cancer risk. Living within 500 feet of an oil and gas well (which is not as rare as one might think) includes a lifetime cancer risk eight times higher than the EPA’s upper level risk threshold. In communities targeted by the natural gas industry, it’s not rare at all — over half of all public schools and daycare facilities in Arlington, Texas are within a half mile of an active gas well.
The transportation of natural gas also bears marked health risks for the communities that infrastructure is built within. Pipelines routinely leak massive amounts of methane, along with toxic, cancer-causing chemicals known as volatile organic compounds, into the air. Compressor stations, which are placed every 30–50 miles along a pipeline to keep gas flowing, are also known to leak carcinogenic gasses like formaldehyde and benzene. When natural gas is piped into homes and businesses for cooking and heating, this carries its own cancer risks: an October 2022 study found that gas stoves can leak benzene at concentrations that exceed that of environmental tobacco smoke.
Biden was born and raised in the state that would become “ground zero” of the fracked gas boom: Pennsylvania. His hometown of Scranton is also home to one of the largest fracked gas power plants in the eastern U.S. and one of Pennsylvania’s largest fracking waste landfills. Fracking waste contains at least 55 different toxic chemicals known to cause cancer, including 20 linked to leukemia and lymphoma.
Though fracking today is deeply unpopular with Pennsylvanians, Putin’s war in Ukraine has led Republican representatives in Pennsylvania to call for looser environmental restrictions, more gas pipelines, more state land opened for drilling, and tax cuts for drillers. Needless to say, that would be catastrophic for all those who live there. It’s also antithetical to the goals of Biden’s Cancer Moonshot, with its vision of presidential leadership working to prevent needless suffering.
Biden faced a fork in the road when Putin invaded Ukraine last spring. Instead of accelerating renewable energy projects and embracing fuel conservation, the Biden administration chose to double down on U.S. liquified natural gas (LNG) exports (which largely come from fracking) to Europe. The administration’s natural gas policy is locking in a slow-motion disaster in the making: though the U.S. could meet its target increase in LNG exports to Europe through 2030 with existing LNG infrastructure alone, the industry is going full-steam ahead on more than doubling its current LNG infrastructure. The 24 LNG projects currently in the planning or construction phase would increase annual greenhouse gas emissions by at least 90 million tons per year, which does not include the emissions from drilling and fracking, the methane leaks from wells and pipelines, or burning the gas inside homes and businesses.
There is no such thing as short-term investment in natural gas; all of its complicated infrastructure requires multiple years and high financial investment to build, and then has a decades-long usable lifespan with low marginal costs. All the while, that infrastructure is poisoning communities from western Pennsylvania to southern Louisiana. Fracking and all other forms of fossil fuel production, whether for domestic use or exporting abroad, turn already vulnerable “environmental justice” communities into sacrificial lambs.
Over the past two years, the Biden administration has fallen back on old patterns, seeking to keep domestic energy costs low and Europe’s homes heated by imploring U.S. oil and gas producers to produce more fuel. What this obscures is the profound ongoing costs of that energy extraction for communities at every stage. We are paying more than we know. The fact that natural gas at every stage of its life increases people’s risk of cancer is an easily overlooked facet of the vast tragedy of our dependence on fossil fuels.
As the natural gas industry pushes to have itself included among the “cleaner” fuels that rise to dominance this century, it is imperative that the Biden administration not buy into this myth. Cancer is a universally familiar hardship, and being honest about the cancer risks associated with natural gas along with its climate impact is a strong political communications strategy. Plus, with renewable energy now the world’s cheapest energy source, we have at our fingertips another way of powering the world that does not cost us the life of the earth, and the health of so many around us.
When Biden announced his Cancer Moonshot back in February, he said that his “challenge to everyone involved in this fight against cancer” was to “take a hard look at your practice. Ask yourself, are you practicing perfectly, or am I practicing to make the old way permanent?”
Biden should ask himself the same about his push to deepen U.S. investment in fossil gas. Rather than practicing to make the old way — the combustion of fossil fuels — permanent, why not boldly wed his Cancer Moonshot to the energy transition, and push for an end to cancer and carcinogenic fossil fuel use as we know it?
IMAGE: “Joe Biden speaking at the Cleveland Clinic Medical Innovation Summit” is in the public domain.