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California Lawmakers Have Approved a Fracking Bill That Pulls All Punches

SB 4 so watered down after pressure from oil and gas industry that it will do more harm than good

Senator Fran Pavley’s (D – Agoura Hills) bill to regulate fracking and acidizing for oil and gas passed the California Assembly by a vote of 47-17 Tuesday. My organization, Earthworks, had initially supported SB 4, but we withdrew our support with after the bill was weakened at the last minute by the oil and gas industry and California’s surprisingly pro-drilling Governor Jerry Brown, just days before it came to a floor vote.

Jerry BrownPhoto by Neon TommyAttention now turns to Governor Jerry Brown’s administration. Whether or not he signs the bill
into law, he is in charge of the agency that is supposed to be protecting Californians from
renegade oil and gas companies.

California is the nation’s fourth largest producer of oil, with over 50,000 wells. At least 80 percent of these wells are in Kern County, around Bakersfield, uneasily sharing the landscape with the state’s productive agricultural industry and contributing to the worst air quality in the nation. Fracking has been happening for decades in California, but a new boom is on the horizon in oil production as oil companies like Chevron and Occidental gear up to use extreme extraction techniques to capture the oil trapped in the Monterey shale formation.

Fracking isn’t the only thing we have to worry about in California. Because of the states complicated earthquake-prone geology, parts of the Monterey shale are uneconomical to frack, but could be turned into oil fields using acidization and other unconventional extraction methods.

Despite its reputation as a bastion of environmentalism, California has been far behind other oil producing states in terms of regulating oil drilling. The Golden State has no regulation for fracking, acidization, or other forms of unconventional oil and gas drilling. As recently as 2010, the state’s lead agency on oil and gas, the Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal resources (DOGGR), claimed that fracking wasn’t occurring in California, even though oil producers claimed it had been happening for decades. DOGGR wasn’t issuing permits for fracking, wasn’t subjecting fracking to environmental laws or public review, and wasn’t informing citizens when fracking was coming to their town.

This legislative session kicked off with the California Democratic party voting to add ‘banning fracking’ to its platform, and 10 different bills to reduce harm from fracking were introduced, including 3 bills which called for a moratorium on the practice altogether while the state figured out whether there was any way to protect communities and the environment from fracking’s impacts. The “see no fracking, hear no fracking”practice in the state was definitively challenged by state legislators.

The oil and gas companies fought back, hard. Tens of thousands of Californians have weighed in against fracking in California, and polls show a majority of Californians opposing fracking, but the movement to stop the California frack attack lost this play.

What’s problematic in the bill:

-       Last minute amendments that suit the oil and gas industry leave open the possibility that fracking and acidizing for oil and gas can escape review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

-       The head of DOGGR can rule that CEQA need not apply to oil and gas, mirroring the federal loophole that oil and gas gained under the National Environmental Policy Act, one of the Halliburton Loopholes in 2005.

-       Fracking and acidizing for oil and gas proceed under the current lack of regulatory scrutiny between now and January 2015 when the bill takes effect.

What we gain with the bill:

-       Industry reports a frack job happening in California every day, and from the time SB 4 takes effect, frackers will be required to report their water use and chemical use, and a permitting regime will come into place.

-       Landowners, adjacent property owners and tenants will be notified prior to fracking taking place.

-       A plan for disposal of wastewater must be in place, which helps avoid some of the worst impacts of fracking in other states.

-       The greatest gain, and a tribute to Senator Pavley’s hard work, is that for the first time that state will meaningfully regulate acidizing and other forms of unconventional well stimulation for oil and gas.

Over the past year, we watched SB 4 weaken. The original bill as written would have been a touchdown for fracktivists, and by the end of the session we were still hoping for a first down. Now that the bill has passed, we may not have even gained yardage — especially if the bill harms our ability to apply CEQA to oil and gas fracking and acidizing in the state. Attention now turns to Governor Jerry Brown’s administration. Whether or not he signs the bill into law, he is in charge of the agency that is supposed to be protecting Californians from renegade oil and gas companies. Earthworks along with most environmental groups in the state have demanded a time out for the oil industry and demanded that the governor impose an immediate moratorium on fracking. Attention also turns to local governments, who are taking action across the state to ban or reduce harm from fracking.

Jennifer Krill, Executive Director, EARTHWORKSJennifer Krill photo
As program director at Rainforest Action Network, Jennifer Krill helped lead campaigns to protect old growth forests and break America’s oil addiction. She is currently the executive director of EARTHWORKS, an advocacy group that focuses on the negative impacts of mineral and energy extraction.

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