A California Fracking Moratorium Post-Mortem

How Big Oil and Big Democrats outplayed Big Green and crushed the grassroots

“A fracking bill gone bad.” Those are words from The Los Angeles Times, which at first endorsed SB4 — Senator Fran Pavley’s measure to regulate hydraulic fracturing in California —  and now calls on Governor Jerry Brown veto it.

So how did things get so bad? How did we go from a bill that much of the environmental community supported to a bill that most green groups are now fighting? I’m a climate blogger, grassroots activist, and was elected as chair of the California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus on my leadership against fracking the Golden State. Here’s my take.

fossil fuel protestPhoto by Ian UmdeaThe anti-fracking movement began with the Golden State’s characteristic optimism. When environmental groups discovered that regulators were completely asleep at the wheel on fracking in the most environmentally minded state in the nation, they sprung into action.

1. Hope Springs Eternal

The anti-fracking movement began with the Golden State’s characteristic optimism. When environmental groups discovered that regulators were completely asleep at the wheel on fracking in the most environmentally minded state in the nation, they sprung into action. The movie Gasland was making fracking into a household word, industry’s interest in fracking the Monterey Shale was picking up, and New York had a moratorium on fracking. California couldn’t let New York out-protect it, could it?

Unlike other states, California is being fracked mostly for oil, not natural gas. California has always had oil — see the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill that galvanized the then-fledgling environmental movement, or the movie There Will Be Blood set in Kern County, or the La Brea tar pits. California’s oil production has declined as the easily available oil was extracted, but new fracking technology, enabling deep and horizontal drilling, put the Monterey Shale in play. This area runs, roughly, from southern Monterey County along the California coast, stopping in Los Angeles, with a significant jog inward into the west Central Valley. In other words, the Monterey Shale is deep under California’s prime agricultural land and coast.

The good news: no natural gas means no faucets on fire. The bad news: Monterey Shale oil is particularly heavy sour crude, to use industry slang. The California Air Resources Board finds that some Monterey Shale oil is the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive in the world, topping even the Canadian tarsands. Of its 400 billion estimated barrels, 15.5 billion are estimated to be extractable by new technology such as fracking and acidizing. I did some math and calculated that the Monterey Shale’s carbon footprint is comparable to the Keystone XL pipeline and would delay AB32, California’s landmark global warming law, for 80 years.

Environmentally minded Democrats immediately grasped the nasty implications of a fracking oil boom. Fracking uses a lot of water; California doesn’t have much water. Disposal of fracking fluids underground may cause earthquakes; California is already earthquake-prone. Fracking may cause groundwater contamination; California’s oil-rich counties feed the world. And unlike other states where fracking for natural gas could be justified as an arguably cleaner-than-coal alternative, fracking California’s dirty oil was unequivocally bad for the climate. The only question was how far to go to address the issue. Would the state adopt new regulations, with permits and disclosures and details. Or would California go for a total moratorium? “People won’t march in the street for well casing regulations,” I argued to the green groups seeking regulations.

I played a large role in getting a resolution seeking a moratorium on fracking through the California Democratic Party in November 2012 and again this past April, overcoming initial skepticism from labor, as ten fracking bills, including three bills each seeking a moratorium, were introduced in the state legislature. I built a listserv to provide daily-ish news roundups and give a voice to activists not part of the big green groups’ lobbying efforts. I created the #unfrackCal hashtag for Twitter users. Fran Pavley, a fierce environmentalist state Senator, told me to keep pushing for a moratorium even while she worked on her regulations bill (more on that below). A Californians Against Fracking umbrella coalition was set up, including green groups such as Center for Biological Diversity, Food & Water Watch, and Friends of the Earth. Rallies were held, and Gasland II was shown at house parties. In short, the spring was filled with promise.

2. “Greed Is Good” to Jerry Brown

Some troubling signs appeared up right away. A lot of stories and columns and op-eds extolling the financial benefits of the Monterey Shale popped up in a lot of strange places. It was almost as though a wealthy industry was gearing up a sophisticated yet stealthy public relations campaign in anticipation of a tough public fight. The green groups working on the fracking seemed mostly better at writing 40-page letters critiquing regulations than in working with the grassroots. I offered to write a detailed, county-by-county plan for how to sway local supervisors, newspapers, and other political influencers. The offer was ignored.

Former environmentalist Governor Jerry Brown called fracking a “fabulous economic opportunity” and signaled that he would not impose a moratorium. A state senator told me: “Governor Brown has cut a deal with the oil companies.” Sure enough, they had rounded up a million dollars to give to his Proposition 30 last year. Then Occidental maxed out donating his 2014 reelection campaign in June 2013 — almost as if Oxy were sending a signal that it approved of his activities on its behalf.

A report mostly funded by the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) predicted billions of dollars and millions of jobs from California’s next black gold rush. I’m told that a Brown staffer shoved the report down the throat of any recalcitrant legislator interested in a moratorium. I asked the green groups to write rebuttals; nothing beyond idle speculation happened. (A report explaining that the Monterey Shale will be a jobs bust may be forthcoming from another well-funded group, long after the report could influence the political process.)

By the way, WSPA is California’s biggest spending lobbyist. Chevron is number six.

3. The Speaker Wants This Bill, Not That One

The first turning point came in late May. Assemblymember Holly Mitchell, a Democrat from Culver City, had introduced a bill calling for a five-year fracking moratorium. She watered it down to one year to attract votes. It failed on the Assembly floor, with 17 Assemblymembers abstaining. Speaker of the Assembly John A. Perez of Los Angeles is a friend to labor but not, especially, environmentalists, and he’s known for party discipline on votes. Seventeen abstentions sent a strong message: the speaker didn’t want a moratorium.

All but one of the 10 fracking bills died shortly thereafter. The only one standing was one authored by Fran Pavley. Her SB4 proposed a set of disclosures: disclosure to neighbors, disclosure of toxic chemicals to a limited extent (the exact amount of disclosure was hotly debated), and disclosure on a state database other than the voluntary FracFocus website maintained by the industry. The bill also promised a study of fracking to be completed by January 2015, and it required frackers to pull fracking-specific permits. That last requirement was among the most important. It meant that CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, would be triggered and a state agency would have to write an environmental impact report before any permit could be issued for any single fracking project.

Was SB4 ever a strong bill? The moratorium-only groups consistently derided it as weak.

But other environmental organizations — including Natural Resources Defense Council, California League of Conservation Voters, Environmental Working Group, and Clean Water Action  — supported SB4, arguing that a moratorium was politically impossible. Based on its experience in other states, the NRDC’s criteria for strong fracking regulations were all about disclosure; Pavley’s bill followed the disclosure criteria set up by NRDC, so NRDC wasted no time in labeling SB4 “the toughest fracking bill in the nation.”

NRDC circulated emails asking people to support SB4 to “stop out of control fracking,” while CLCV blogged that SB4 would force Big Oil to answer questions. The strategy worked: Many people signed believing that they were supporting a moratorium. One North Coast legislator’s office reported a high volume of calls from people favoring SB4 to impose a moratorium.

A couple of summertime news stories seemed to make the moratorium case stronger. First, an AP story found fairly widespread fracking offshore the Santa Barbara-Ventura coastline, unknown to four different sets of oblivious federal and state regulators. Second was the growing realization that the Monterey Shale rock wasn’t going to be fractured with a mixture of water, sand, and toxic chemicals, but instead would be “acidized.” That is, deadly hydrofluoric acid would be dropped down holes to dissolve rock. Accordingly, Pavley amended SB4 to include acidizing (but not offshore fracking). The bill passed the state Senate, 28-11.

Polls showed that Californians wanted something done, but were less conclusive on whether the “something” should be a moratorium or regulations.

Meanwhile, the California Democratic Party moved on to other matters, notably the election of Leticia Perez, a state senate candidate who received $150,000 from Chevron and who penned an op-ed favoring fracking as an economic boon. (She lost to Andy Vidak in a July special election. Vidak voted against SB4 when given a chance.)

By mid-August, it was obvious to careful observers that the Assembly was solidifying around SB4. Nancy Skinner, a termed-out assemblymember representing Berkeley, wouldn’t vote against SB4. Marc Levine backed a Marin County moratorium but still supported the bill. Staffers for both Mike Gatto, the Burbank Assemblymember chairing the powerful Appropriations Committee, and Senator Pavley complained to me about the volume of pro-moratorium calls, but not a single legislator would pledge to vote against SB4 or fight for a stronger bill.

Most frustrating: liberal California Democratic legislators acknowledge that fracking 15 billion barrels of dirty oil would exacerbate climate change, but they don’t seem to care. They’ve debated the niceties of SB4’s toxic chemical disclosures and a state database vs. the FracFocus database. But they haven’t talked about the inevitable increase in carbon dioxide emissions from oil fracking. The bill’s only mention of climate is a vague promise to complete a study by 2015 that looks at “potential greenhouse gas emissions” along with the impacts on wildlife and native plants — presumably greenhouse gas emissions caused by burning oil have not been studied enough by the California Air Resources Board, federal scientists, or the global IPCC. When asked about the Monterey Shale’s contribution to climate change, legislators look sorrowful and then pivot to discussing what’s politically feasible.

4. The Democrats and Big Oil Act At Last

An Assembly Appropriations Committee hearing on August 21 revealed the politics at play. Supporters of SB4 lined up; the relatively somnolent Californians Against Fracking sent no one to speak against the bill. Assemblymember Mike Gatto, chair of the powerful committee, emphasized the sensible nature of the regulations but lamented the divided environmental community. No one mentioned climate change. The bill passed with all Democrats in favor.

Then came the amendments of Friday, September 6, rumored to be demanded by Governor Brown as a condition of signing the bill. Under the new changes, fracking would be able to continue without permits until 2015. Yes, you read that right — the bill intended to make frackers get permits now says that the state regulatory agency shall allow all of the currently ongoing, unpermitted fracking and acidizing to keep on fracking and acidizing without permits until regulations are written in 2015. A poorly written amendment states that the state regulatory agency shall allow frackers to keep on frackin’, so long as they certify compliance with… well, the amendment isn’t very clear as to what frackers need to certify compliance.  It also muddies the waters regarding CEQA. Environmentalists contend that it could withdraw projects from CEQA review entirely, and they complain that the state oil/gas regulatory agency is an industry lapdog that exempts virtually every project from CEQA. (Pavley’s office tells me that the final version of the bill provides meaningful environmental review, and the intent of the bill is clear.)

On September 10, the night before the final vote, the Los Angeles County Democratic Party voted to endorse SB4, even though it contradicted the California Democratic Party’s moratorium-only resolution. Eric Bauman, chair of LACDP, supports SB4. He told me: “All of the LACDP members who spoke in favor of SB4 cited their trust and confidence in Senator Pavley and the need to take action, especially since the chance for further action was so slim.”

The September 6 amendments were so bad that the California League of Conservation Voters, NRDC, Environmental Working Group, and Clean Water Action pulled their support of SB4. However, they didn’t send out their big press release until mid-morning Wednesday, September 11, around the same time as the Assembly began voting on SB4. A couple of Assemblymembers stated on Twitter that they didn’t know that support had been pulled until after they voted.

Would knowing that moderate green groups pulled support from SB4 have made a difference in their votes? Or would Speaker Perez’ desire to move this bill trump the green groups’ late pull?

SB4 passed the 80-member Assembly on a final vote of 54-20. No Democrats voted against it, and a few Republicans crossed the aisle. Governor Brown states he’ll sign the bill despite the appalled LA Times editorial and environmentalists demanding a veto.

5. The Fall of Fracking?

Senator Pavley calls the passage of SB4 a ”stunning victory for the public and the environment.”

The California office of fracking mouthpiece Energy in Depth tweets approval: “#SB4: CA now has the strictest #fracking rules in the U.S. Economic growth and environ. protection will coexist as they always have.”

John Brooks, head of Californians For Responsible Oil and Gas, a Ventura County-based group, “considers passage of SB 4 a victory because of the disclosure, permitting, scientific review and, yes, CEQA.”

Californians Against Fracking vows to keep fighting. Zack Malitz, CREDO organizer, states that 6,000 calls were generated to legislators’ offices this week. People’s passion on this issue isn’t going away, he says. Similarly, Victoria Kaplan, MoveOn’s California fracking organizer, tells me: “MoveOn members have organized dozens of events, sent more than 10,000 faxes to the Governor, and made thousands of phone calls calling for a ban on fracking. More than 50,000 MoveOn members in California have signed petitions calling for a ban or a moratorium on fracking; we’ve seen far, far less energy seeking regulatory measures.”

A few activists mutter about a statewide initiative. Others vow local bans; already, Santa Cruz and Marin counties have passed largely symbolic anti-fracking measures.

If SB4 had failed, I had a plan to win the bigger war the next year, with a legislator poised to introduce a fracking moratorium bill and studies demonstrating the greenhouse gas implications and more studies showing that California is better served growing its clean energy economy than fracking up the Golden State. Instead, jubilant Democrats think they’ve solved a problem by greenlighting Occidental to extract as much of the 15 billion barrels of dirty oil as it can before permits are needed in 2015.

Expect a whole lotta frackin’ this fall and into next year.

The Latest

Chinese, Russian, and Canadian Climate Policies Driving World Above 5C of Warming

US and Australia's policies are only slightly behind, pushing global temperature rise over 4C if world followed their example

Jonathan Watts The Guardian

Protecting Prized Open Space in Wine Country

A northern California nonprofit is pushing to conserve a special piece of Sonoma's history, heritage, and habitat

Nina Erlich-Williams

Increasing Arctic Ship Traffics Puts Narwhals and Other Unique Species at Risk

As sea ice cover declines, endemic marine mammals could face more vessel collisions and other disturbances

Donna Hauser Harry Stern Kristin Laidre

Smoke from California Wildfires Causing Air Quality Crisis

As fires devastate communities, authorities warn of public health risk throughout much of greater San Francisco Bay Area

Andy Rowell

Climate Change Taking Toll on South Indian Fishing Communities

A year after Cyclone Ockhi tore through the region, Kerala families struggle with fear and uncertainty

Mary-Rose Abraham

Court Halts Work on Keystone XL, Says Trump Admin Didn’t Consider Environment

District court judge rules feds “jumped the gun” by pushing forward with the pipeline

Oliver Milman The Guardian