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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.

RL Miller
RL Miller (@RL_Miller on twitter) is a climate blogger, chair of the California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus, and founder of the Climate Hawks Vote SuperPac. The author’s opinions expressed in this piece do not represent the views of any of those organizations.

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Might the anti-fracking movement support a California proposition against fracking?

the legislature is not ready to ban fracking.  What about the people of California?

Thanks for considering it.

By Bruce Burdick on Fri, December 06, 2013 at 11:05 pm

I lived in California from 1952 to 1992.  In the days before St. Ronald took over, the license plates were black background with gold lettering to advertise California Founding Wealth in OIL and GOLD.  St. Ronald’s PR (Propaganda Renewal) machine turned the plates to blue and yellow for sunshine and sea.  Over the years the history of filthy lucre has been erased from the modern memory of Californians.

It should be remembered that during the 1960’s, oil wells dotted the landscape all over the state, from Signal Hill to all the small pumps in neighborhoods.  Those wells were shut down in the 1960’s because of their lack of worth when weighed against the cost of earthquakes and pollution, both of which they caused. 

In those days, they pumped hydraulic fluid and water into oil wells also to frack the rock.  The only difference is that today, they’re fracking deeper for methane, which is the most dangerous of global gas, and which is the gas they bottle, pipe, and sell as a clean fuel; no matter it’s danger to our atmosphere or to explosion.

Today they call it “fracking”.  Then they called it Oil Wells.  or Gas Wells.

We need to go back to the wisdom of the 1960’s and cap the wells.  California does quite well financially without the destruction of dinosaur people with their dinosaur thinking.  The last time they were let loose, they ended in the Tar Pits.  May they follow their ancestors.

By Yellowbird on Sat, October 05, 2013 at 1:35 pm

Much has been written since passage of SB 4 to back up Senator Pavley’s claim that CEQA the California Environmental Quality Act still applies. That said, Citizens For Responsible Oil & Gas (CFROG)  welcomes the advocacy of RL Miller for a true analysis of shale oil recovery and climate change . It is our hope these regulations and additional local protections from negative impacts of well stimulation , will be interim steps until we break free from fossil fuels .

By John Brooks on Tue, September 17, 2013 at 1:41 pm

Why do you completely omit from the narrative the #DropSB4 campaign that I started and worked on full time for three months that generated 20,000 signatures to Pavley to withdraw her bill and fight for a ban instead and a rally and petition delivery with 60 people at her office that resulted in several articles and one pissed off State Senator who was used to being treated as the environmental queen of California. And while discussing the role of the Big Green groups who green washed the bill and CAF who didn’t oppose it strongly enough, you conveniently left out the role of a Democratic party activist with ties to Pavley who prevented any Dem club president from publicly opposing SB4. She was as influential as Eric Bauman in getting that endorsement after the amendments. And what about your lack of leadership in killing this bill? You are the chair of the party’s Environmental Caucus after all. Had Democratic activists and the environmental groups who wanted a ban not regulations united to fight this, it just might have had some effect on the Democratic legislators. It’s one thing to say “I told you so.” It’s another to actually do something. I can’t say I knew these amendments were coming that would actually make the situation worse than it currently is. But as Jed Holtzman wrote on the NRDC blog, “Last-minute water-downs are par for the course, and we knew WSPA was in there hard—this is exactly the predictable end that the “oppose” folks were talking about, and it is hard to understand how “outside” citizen activists could be more savvy about this issue than “inside” folks who are paid to spend much of their time in the oily chambers of Sacramento and/or Washington, and who actually see this happen all the time.” You and I were the two individuals who knew that regulations would be worse than nothing even before the amendments.  It’s too bad we couldn’t have convinced more people.

By Lauren Steiner on Mon, September 16, 2013 at 8:02 pm

The reason the legislation failed is quite simple, and virtually nothing to do with your immature and grossly ignorant blog.  Gasland I and II are screeds pack full of lies and misrepresentations, which you repeat with “burning faucets” nonsense.  That man in the first movie had a water well drilled through five layers of coal seams.  Ever heard of canary in a coal mine?  Methane builds up into tremendous quantities, naturally, and that well has been saturated with methane since it was drilled - for water - and had absolutely nothing to do with ANY oil and gas activities. There is enough factual information for even the Dems in CA to read and study and realize the “green” groups you represent are all about headlines (read - taunting lies) for their “DONORS” to keep the money flowing.  To think and promote otherwise is stupid.  Want to know who the “donors” are of ExxonMobil?  Million of shareholders and pension funds around the world and in your own neighborhood if you are old enough to own a house!  Ask who are the donors to the Center for Biological whatever…better still, look into the backgrounds of the persons who run these “green” groups and see for yourself the scams laid down on the young and impressionable youth (who are always looking for causes).  A true “environmental” group, like the Audubon Society, never gets involved with trash like what you write about and have worked with the petroleum industry for 60 years making sure environmental conservation practices are maintained.  One day, you might just be embarrassed about your ignorance, and then you might write real journalism and contribute to the public good with truth and not lies. Want to read about “dirty” oil companies and how our civilization thrives on hydrocarbons, Daniel Yergin’s two books, starting with The Prize will inform if you actually care about facts and the truth.  Otherwise, your “blog” and summation is just plain infantile and pernicious.  Sorry, but please try to grow up one day and do us all a favor.

By Stephen Harris on Mon, September 16, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Below is a link of speech by Congressman Henry Waxman calling for a moratorium on fracking in California:

By Kevin Lynn on Mon, September 16, 2013 at 12:14 pm

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